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Show Us The Money – Town of Bethel Officials Not Forthcoming About Where $1.2 Million Grant Money Went

Report by Paula Antolini, November 3, 2019, 9:19AM EDT

Left to right, Bethel Town Attorney Martin Lawlor, Bethel First Selectman Matthew Knickerbocker, Bethel Comptroller Robert Kozlowski.
(BETHEL ADVOCATE file photo, ©2018 Bethel Advocate / Paula Antolini)

OPINION

Has anyone wondered where all the grant money has gone, that was given to the Town of Bethel in the last 5-10 years?

Where is the town government transparency? Obviously there is none.

Apparently the Bethel officials are putting up many road blocks for a simple request for public records. The question is, WHY?

BETHEL ADVOCATE sent a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request on October 8, 2019, concerning THREE grants, totaling $1,240,149, to the Town of Bethel officials, Comptroller Robert Kozlowski and Director of Economic Development Janice Chrzescijanek and they were forwarded (by one or both individuals) to First Selectman Matthew Knickerbocker and Town Attorney Martin Lawlor.

This was over TWENTY days ago, and they have not provided the information we requested. (Another FOIA was sent at the same time requesting billing and payment records to ONE attorney on ONE issue involving taxpayer funds, which the town officials also have not provided us documents yet either. That will be a separate story coming shortly.)

*****

Here are the details of our FOIA request (with links to stories about the grants):

FOIA REQUEST:  

I am requesting any and all information about: GRANTS to Bethel as shown below…. 

1) Copy of the $290,149 Bethel Grant from 2014 exact wording. “To Improve Downtown Bethel Business District.”  View article here: https://betheladvocate.com/bethel-awarded-290149-grant-to-improve-downtown-business-district/  which I believe was part of CT state’s Main Street Investment Fund, which is administered through the CT State Department of Housing.

2) Copy of Bethel Grant in the amount of $450,000 +/- from 2016, exact wording. “The town received a $450,000 state grant to improve the streetscape downtown.” … “The grant will allow the town to fix and widen sidewalks, plant trees and add lights from The Spot Bar and Grille on Front Street and down Greenwood Avenue toward Route 53.” …”The money came from the state’s Main Street Investment Fund. ” … as stated in the News Times https://www.newstimes.com/local/article/Bethel-receives-grant-to-improve-downtown-10162868.php#item-85307-tbla-2

3) Copy of a Bethel $500,000 Grant Approved in 2007 and Never Used (was this ever recovered?) View article here: https://betheladvocate.com/a-bethel-500000-grant-is-in-jeopardy-approved-in-2007-and-never-used-might-be-too-late-to-recover/

Last, my questions A-B-C-D clarified, as NO documents need to be created, I am requesting records that you already have on file:

A) Copies of bank statements showing these grant funds deposited (including dates and amounts and from which grant). 

B) Copies of Invoices for projects paid for with the above 3 grant funds (including name of company or persons, dates, amount paid, description of work, and from which grant and/or bank acct. it was paid). 

C) Balance now (grant money) in accts. (bank statement) that these grants were deposited into, and indicate which acct.

D) Copies of checks paid to companies/persons for projects done under these grants (note what the payment was for).

FEE WAIVER REQUEST:

I am also requesting a waiver of all fees because the disclosure of the requested information is in the public interest and will likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the grants mentioned above (as stated in FOI laws: https://www.foia.gov/faq.html. This information will be used by BETHEL ADVOCATE News Media to write an article reporting on Bethel grants.

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Here is Attorney Martin Lawlor’s reply to the FOIA request about the grants (view below, in part, his first email to us). First Selectman Matthew Knickerbocker said Lawlor should receive all FOIA requests instead of the individual departments that the FOIAs concern. (To clarify, BETHEL ADVOCATE had immediately sent an updated FOIA detailing the exact information concerning all three grants we were asking about.):

LAWLOR’S EMAIL RESPONSE TO THE BETHEL ADVOCATE FOIA REQUEST:

Thu, Oct 10, 2019 7:18 pm

Ms. Antolini,

Your FOI request of October 8, 2019 set forth below has been forwarded to me for review and initial comment.  I would like it to be clear under the FOI Act, no municipal department is required to conduct a search, create a report or answer questions about the documents that are being sought.  The department’s requirement is to gather the documents being requested  for review.  To do so, there must be some clarity of what documents the requester is looking to review.

In addition, it is possible that the grants you seek to discover may not all be located in the Finance Department or with the Economic Director’s files.  Therefore your request will be forwarded to several departments to ascertain if they have the documents you are searching for.  In addition, the older the documents you seek, the longer it will take to obtain and present to you.  Not all files such as the ones you seek are electronically copied which means the files must be manually reviewed which takes time.  The departments must complete this review for you while at the same time dealing with each of its day to day functions of its departmental duties which requires that time must be allocated between the departments regular day to day duties and your review.  All of the above takes time.  I would advise you that it will be a few weeks before the pertinent departments will have completed their search for documents you seek. In addition, unless the format is already in electronic form, the Town will charge the sum of $.50 per page for each of the documents.  The News Times recently made a request for documents and they were informed what the total cost would be for the copies at $.50 a page.  Copies will not be provided unless payment is made first.  In some instances it is possible to scan the documents that are not already in electronic form but that will be at an expense to you as the requester which again must be paid for in advance.

I believe the information you have provided for requests as to No. 1 and No. 3 should be sufficient to identify what grants the departments will be able to pull but due to No. 3’s  age, it may take a little longer.

In regards to No. 2, I would ask for more information from you to allow the departments to find what you are looking for.  Without further information, I would consider your request as a search which under the Act, the department does not need to conduct.  The Town certainly wants to accommodate you but more information is needed to identify this grant.  Please provide greater information concerning the same.

Last, it is not the department’s responsibility to answer any questions under the FOI Act you have or may pose.  If after you received and reviewed the documentation you have questions, you would need to contact the appropriate department head to make an appointment with in order to discuss and answer questions you may have, assuming the department head has the information to answer your questions, or, you could make another FOI request for specific documents which may provide the answers you seek.

As I receive information from the departments, I will advise you of the same.

Martin J. Lawlor, Jr.

Bethel, CT 06801   

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Not only have we NOT been able to obtain information on THREE grants, totaling $1,240,149, in over three weeks now, but we are getting different answers to our questions, and are being told BETHEL ADVOCATE will have to pay hundreds of dollars to obtain the information, fees which should be waived according to FOIA U.S. Code § 552, and we are being told it will take weeks to find the information, if at all.

According to FOIA U.S. Code § 552 in Section (4)(A)(i) it reads, “In order to carry out the provisions of this section, each agency shall promulgate regulations, pursuant to notice and receipt of public comment, specifying the schedule of fees applicable to the processing of requests under this section and establishing procedures and guidelines for determining when such fees should be waived or reduced. Such schedule shall conform to the guidelines which shall be promulgated, pursuant to notice and receipt of public comment, by the Director of the Office of Management and Budget and which shall provide for a uniform schedule of fees for all agencies.

BETHEL ADVOCATE was NOT provided documents regarding a “Schedule of Fees,” we were only emailed a random non-detailed figures of various charges scattered throughout lengthy numerous emails from Attorney Martin Lawlor, with town officials First Selectman Matthew Knickerbocker and Attorney Martin Lawlor both refusing to waive the fees.

According to FOIA U.S. Code § 552 in Section (4)(A)(i)(ii)(III) it reads, Documents shall be furnished without any charge or at a charge reduced below the fees established under clause (ii) if disclosure of the information is in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the government…”

When BETHEL ADVOCATE asked WHY they thought the fee waiver did not conform to the FOIA Code stating “if disclosure of the information is in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the government” and that we are news media and not to be charged, they would only say they “have the RIGHT to charge fees” or Lawlor stated, “I DO NOT AGREE WITH YOUR COMMENTS OR CONCLUSIONS” in an email.  

In an October 21, 2019 email, Lawlor stated: “In regard to your FOI concerning the three grants, I have already responded to you regarding your FOI request for waiver of fees for the attorney information for the crematorium matter.  As I stated, I have reviewed the statutes regarding payment of copies and/waivers.  If you review CGS 1-212 concerning waivers, the only category that could apply to your request is whether it benefits the general welfare.  However, it is in the judgment of the Town to make the determination as to the benefit of the general welfare.  I also contacted the FOI Commission office and verified that it is within the purview of the Town to make that decision.  As such, there will be no waiver of fees.

So there you have it folks, Lawlor does not think it “benefits the general welfare” to obtain information about where $1.2 million dollars in grant money went.

Also, when asked for a breakdown of the charges, just to view how they computed the actual charges, and for what documents, Attorney Martin Lawlor stopped answering our emails. His last correspondence to us about the grants was on Oct 22, 2019 after which we asked for the breakdown and never got a response.

Not very professional.

This is NOT only about fees, in which of course, town officials make it illegally exorbitant to obtain documents.

It is about our municipal government officials putting up road blocks and using tactics of all kinds, such as overcharging and delays, in order to prevent news media or individuals from obtaining necessary public information to inform them or the public about municipal government actions regarding finances, in a timely manner, especially before election time.

IS THIS THE GOVERNMENT YOU WANT?

WE HAVE ASKED SELECTMAN KNICKERBOCKER TO EXPLAIN WHERE THE MONEY WENT FOR THESE GRANTS, FOR THE LAST SEVERAL YEARS. The answers were always vague, or he would say, “These things take time.” Well now it’s time.

As we stated previously, we had no alternative but to submit an FOIA request for the information, to see what exactly happened to $1.2 million dollars.

How do you forget about, or not know about, THREE grants over a quarter million dollars and TWO that are at, or close to, half a million dollars? Is this how badly town records are being kept or is there a cover up?

We have asked First Selectman Matthew Knickerbocker about these grants ever since the first one of $290,149 was awarded in 2014, and then another grant in 2016 for $450,000 and a third that was for $500,000 and almost expired, originally from 2007.

The town was alerted about the $500,000 grant right before it was about to expire, in 2007, by former CT State Senator Toni Boucher, back in 2007, and we confirmed this with her again this past week.

A town employee stated, “We’re trying to make sure that stays alive,” said Phyllis Kansky, the town’s grants administrator reports the News Times in 2007 … so how can Knickerbocker say he does not remember a half million dollars?

Every year we asked about these grants.

Then in subsequent years, we asked Knickerbocker again and again, even at one event on a stage at a public meeting. He angrily grabbed the microphone and told us that the $500,000 grant money was “in the account” not giving a reason as to why it was not used yet, when we asked that.

On another occasion in 2017, in a video interview during his 2017 campaign (view below, particularly mark 3:00), he told us half of the $500,000 grant was used for the “streetscape.”

View 2017 interview with Knickerbocker below:

Now recently in a phone conversation he told us he does not remember getting any $500,000 grant and said he has “never heard of theMain Street Investment Fund‘ ” which handled the grants.

SO WHICH IS IT?

When we recently questioned Director of Economic Development Janice Chrzescijanek in person, as we stopped by her office one day unannounced, she claimed to NOT know what happened to a $500,000 grant.

In a 2015 News Times article Knickerbocker is quoted talking about the $500,000 grant: “First Selectman Knickerbocker said there was no record of the grant in his or the comptroller’s offices. … “We don’t believe there was ever an official notice,” he said.

On September 8, 2017, in a Pre-Election Interview, QUESTION 21, Knickerbocker, during the 2017 campaign, which mentioned all three grants in question. He stated (Mark 0:34 in video above), “You can view the plan in the Public Works Department, it’s actually under way now … for the next couple of months they’ll be brick work going on, the streetscape. Streetscapes, the whole thing is being lifted up and refurbished and put back down. New planters, new trees going in, refurbishing the whole thing.”

He went on to explain (Mark 1:20) that it takes as long as 6 months to get the contract from the state, so you cannot start work until then. Then he said you have to submit plans to the state, and that could take a year.

“It’s underway now, the money is set aside, it’s not gone,” Knickerbocker said.

At Mark 3:04 BETHEL ADVOCATE specifically asked about the $500,000 grant. He seemed to know all about it in 2017, and said, “That whole $500,000 wasn’t just for streetscape, it included streetscape plus others.

At Mark 3:24, BETHEL ADVOCATE asked, “To beautify Greenwood Avenue, I think it said? Knickerbocker replied, “That was only part of it, that was about half of it.” He said, “So that’s ongoing right now.” He claimed that the grants also covered School Street projects. We cannot know if this is true if we cannot see the original grant papers.

If the grant money was used for “Streetscapes” to completely refurbish the sidewalks in the :”Greenwood Avenue business district” as Knickerbocker said, then why does Greenwood Avenue look like this:

…. and what town official would even LEAVE sidewalks on a main street in this condition? And for how long has this been?

The photos of sidewalks above are located on Greenwood Avenue.

The rest of the sidewalks on Greenwood Avenue are a PATCHWORK of replaced bricks that do not match the original color, and covering areas where trees were REMOVED.

Not to mention the removal of the majority of beautiful trees lining the front of the municipal lawn, on School Street, where the seniors used to bring their folding chairs and sit beneath the shade trees.

Bethel’s trees BEFORE (in 2016) with seniors enjoying the shade:

Bethel’s School Street AFTER all trees removed and numerous lamp posts installed (looks like an airport runway):

Even our beautiful pine tree in P.T. Barnum Square, that is decorated as a Christmas Tree during the holidays, had numerous bottom branches chopped off. When we asked First Selectman Knickerbocker who was responsible for this or even what company did the work, he did not know who authorized it, who did the work, or even why, this was done. Eventually he said it was a “group decision” by many people. WHO? Where is the paperwork? Why didn’t citizens have a say in a decision about such an important tree?

Isn’t it supposed to be unhealthy for the tree, to trim a pine tree this way? “Incorrect pruning could severely damage the development of the plant and, in some cases, even kill it.”

So no one cares if our Christmas tree is killed? Apparently not.:

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Unfortunately, town officials First Selectman Knickerbocker and Attorney Martin Lawlor are making it near impossible and costly to obtain these grant documents, making it seem like a complicated research project that will take long to process.

In a recent phone conversation this past month, Knickerbocker claims to not remember getting the $500,000 grant and said there are no records on it.

This is what Knickerbocker said are some of the reasons for the delay in getting FOI response paperwork:

“Actually, internally he [Lawlor] is working with the department heads who have that paperwork and getting them to pull it all together, and it does take time, especially because we don’t have a Public Works Director right now. Much of the grant paperwork is down there. Some of it is with Phyllis [Kansky]. So he is pressing them to get it together.”

That’s odd, because Attorney Lawlor told us in an email that unless we agreed to pay the charges he already quoted (with no breakdown of charges sent as we asked for) they would do no further research to find documents.

As we said, he now stopped answering our emails.

*****

OUT OF CONTROL. Things are absolutely out of control. Citizens have no say, most officials do as they please, ignoring any and all rules/laws at times and never having to answer for that bad behavior. NO TRANSPARENCY, and you are gradually losing the Bethel you love, because of individuals who care very little about Bethel OR you. Let that sink in. Keep not paying attention and not participating in government matters that affect you directly. Feeling poor lately? Feeling powerless? Albert Einstein is widely credited with saying, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”

Is this the government you want?

Start asking questions. VOTE ACCORDINGLY.

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