In the wake of media scrutiny over mayoral expenditures during an era of fiscal challenge for the Elm City, a state senator and political opponent of the mayor has called for an audit into City Hall.
Last week, Senate Republican President Pro Tempore Len Fasano ’81, R-North Haven, requested that Mayor Toni Harp conduct a comprehensive audit into her office’s spending. In a Oct. 16 letter addressed to Harp, Fasano expressed concern at recent reports that highlight the Harp administration’s spending and lack of transparency. Fasano said that any fiscal irresponsibility would harm both local New Haven taxpayers and all Connecticut residents. The mayor’s office refuted the claims in an open letter three days later.
“Since state government reimburses 39.4 percent of the city’s budget, I am asking that your office conduct a thorough and comprehensive forensic audit,” Fasano wrote in his letter. “This audit would help to ensure that every taxpayer dollar — 39.4 percent of which are State of Connecticut taxpayer dollars — are [sic] being accounted for.”
In his letter, Fasano cited media reports from the New Haven Independent and the New Haven Register to express concern that the Harp administration has appropriated funds and failed to report expenses funded by taxpayers’ dollars, some of which come from the state level.
Harp said that she saw Fasano’s letter only after media sources asked for her comment. Her response sarcastically lauded Fasano’s “intention to serve as an honorary state Senator representing New Haven.”
In her response, Harp said she would condone a forensic audit into her office’s finances, contingent on certain political moves from Fasano. She requested that the Senator pass legislation instituting a 2 percent commuter tax and formally ask North Haven officials to implement affordable housing projects and contribute funds to New Haven initiatives toward combating homelessness and maintaining public health. If Fasano fulfilled those requests, she added, she hoped that he would find state funding for any audit into her office’s spending.
Fasano’s call for an audit comes in the wake of reports from the News and WTNH News 8 that the FBI is allegedly conducting a probe into the mayor’s office after former mayoral staffer Bianca Bowles was arrested for identity fraud in connection to $13,000 worth of personal purchases on a city government credit card. While WTNH News 8 claims to have spoken with FBI agents attempting to question Bowles in connection to a greater probe into the mayor’s office and City Hall, Harp and her spokesman, Laurence Grotheer, have denied such allegations.
On a WNHH radio program Oct. 15, Harp said that she consulted with her police chief and court counsel, who said that the FBI would not confirm a probe into City Hall.
“It was one of those manufactured stories,” Harp said on the program. “It is absolutely not true. Whenever a person who works for a government is dismissed because of some wrongdoing that has to do with money, the FBI looks into it.”
Harp added that she thinks Mario Boone — the WTNH News 8 reporter who broke the FBI probe story — is not a credible journalist.
In an interview with the News, state Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said that although Fasano’s statement touches on real concerns, his comments should be taken into political context.
“I’m sure it comes with a genuine concern but also with a degree of political gamesmanship,” Looney said. “I’ve of course always long advocated that anything where taxpayer dollars are used it be done in a manner with transparency, accountability and oversight.”
Looney added that he was confident in the Board of Alders to make the appropriate decision regarding Fasano’s call for a full audit into the mayor’s office.
Board of Alders President Tyisha Walker-Myers and Ward 24 Alder Evette Hamilton did not respond to requests for comment.
New Haven Chair of the Financial Review and Audit Commission Mohit Agrawal GRD ’20 said that, although he is aware of Fasano’s request, his committee has been focusing on addressing the city’s budget deficit. Therefore, they have not yet focused on the mayor’s spending decisions, particularly those in recent months. He added that the Financial Review and Audit Commission may revisit Fasano’s request for a full audit at a later date.
Looney, Fasano and Harp recently engaged in a public dispute regarding massive drug overdoses that took place on the New Haven Green in August. Following the incident, Fasano released a public statement calling for closer government attention to drug usage in New Haven — which he called “a place of despair” — and Connecticut. His statement condemned the Harp administration for its lack of attention to the issue of drug abuse.
In her response, Harp pointed to what she claimed was a $9.4 million state aid cut for New Haven in 2018. She said she was “appalled” that Fasano would criticize the city’s efforts to maintain public health, given his role as “someone who contributed to our city’s lack of resources,” as leading official in the state’s legislative body. Within hours, Looney defended Harp, praising her administration’s immediate reaction in the wake of the overdoses.
Yet, Fasano continued the quarrel the next day, citing an increase of $32 million — from $196 million to $224 million — in state aid given to New Haven between the years 2011 and 2018.
The conflict between Fasano and Harp is part of a larger pattern of tense partisanship in Connecticut politics — the state was embroiled in a deeply partisan budgetary deadlock in 2017, and the Senate is currently split evenly between 18 Republicans and 18 Democrats.
Looney and Fasano will run for re-election on Nov. 6. Harp does not face re-election until 2021.
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