Investigation Opened Over Contractor Controversy

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(Host) Officials in Montpelier have been swept up in controversy since it was disclosed that the city overpaid a contractor thousands of dollars.

Now, Attorney General Bill Sorrell has opened a criminal investigation into possible larceny and other misdeeds.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) It’s virtually impossible to walk the streets of Montpelier without hearing a conversation about this growing scandal.

Over the weekend, City Manager Bill Fraser disclosed that in 2004, the city mistakenly overpaid a Newport construction company for a water line improvement project.

Instead of paying the Scott Construction Company roughly $85,000, the city wrote a check for $548,000 and the company cashed the check.

The mistake wasn’t discovered until 2006 and city officials, including Fraser, Mayor Mary Hooper and the members of the City Council decided not to go public with this information.

They say they feared that making the case public might impede the city’s efforts to recoup the money and, in the past few years, the City was able to collect about a quarter of its overpayment from the construction company. 

Attorney General Sorrell says there’s a lot to look at in this case.

(Sorrell) "Who knew what, when? What were they thinking? What statements or representations have been made by City personnel or those acting on behalf of the city. Obviously, whether cashing this check for allegedly over $400,000 more than this fellow Scott was owed, whether that was a criminal act of grand larceny."

(Kinzel) City officials held a public hearing on Wednesday night to give residents a chance to weigh in on this issue.  Mayor Hooper opened the meeting by saying that it was a case where the public’s right to know was in conflict with the City’s efforts to get the money back:

(Hooper) "Our dilemma is that the one fiduciary responsibility was directly in odds with the second responsibility. We believed very strongly that we would lose our ability to recoup the funds that had been overpaid if we went public with it. I know that there are different points of view on that."

(Kinzel) The mayor heard a lot of criticism and some concerns that the incident was turning into a witch hunt.

(Woman) "When the City Council became aware of it, we, as the voters and taxpayers, should have been told. I cannot accept keeping this from us. I understand the reasoning, but I simply can’t accept it."

(Woman) "I really hope that we don’t end up trying to ruin people over this, because I don’t think it’s a matter of bad personal intentions."

(Man) "I have to be very honest with you. I feel cheated in terms of democracy and trying to elect what I would consider the best people to do the job whatever the job needs to be done in town."

(Woman) "If I were to make a mistake or be involved in any way of something of this magnitude, I can guarantee you I would be fired immediately. Actually I wouldn’t be fired. I would have the decency to resign."

(Kinzel) The attorney general says it will take several months for his office to complete its investigation.

For VPR News, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier

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