Acts of triage: Supervisors attempt to calm rising storm in Kennett Township
● By Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw
On April 25, attorney Scudder Stevens, the Chairman of the Board of Supervisors of Kennett Township, was returning to his office at the law firm of Lyons, Dougherty, LLC in Chadds Ford, when he received a cell phone call.
It was an officer from the township’s bank, notifying him that the bank's fraud department had discovered a number of suspicious transactions on township accounts.
It has been 69 days since that first conversation, and in the seven weeks that have followed, township manager Lisa Moore was placed on administrative leave and later dismissed from her job, a full investigation by the Chester County District Attorney’s Office – at the request of the township -- is underway, and the township has hired Marcum, LLP, a forensic auditor, to explore bank transactions dating back a decade or more.
While the findings of both reports are not due until the early fall, those who have attended the board’s public meetings since that first announcement – on May 15, June 5 and June 19 – have witnessed Stevens and fellow supervisors Dr. Richard Leff and Whitney Hoffman honor the integrity of the investigations by confining most of their comments about the fraud case to carefully worded statements authored by newly hired media consultant Carl Francis, while fielding questions from the audience, all filtered through township solicitor David Sander.
How could something like this get past all three of you?
How much money?
How long has this been going on?
Your auditor didn’t detect anything on the audit reports?
How will you be able restore the township residents’ faith in you?
The answers to these questions, much like the fate of the accused, rest in the revelations that these investigations will uncover, and while the free wheel spin of speculation has turned this township into a gale storm of rumors, one truth is firmly in place: Stevens, Leff and Hoffman have kept the governance of Kennett Township running – all while acknowledging that the trust they placed in the key suspect in this investigation has vanished.
“I've spent 53 years maintaining a reputation for integrity and being straight with people, and to have somebody else do something that calls that into question is really personal to me,” Hoffman said. “That to me, is most personally the hardest.
“I tell my teenage children, ‘Truth is an important thing and trust is a really important thing, and when it’s broken, it takes a long time to rebuild that.’ There were things that had come up that we had questions about, but it just didn’t seem that it was mission critical at the time, and now, in hindsight, it looks like there was another agenda.”
“It’s been two months of those feelings, but the initial emotion I had was one of shock,” Leff said. “Later on, it became an emotion that had to do with why and how this happened.”
Moore, who was in Europe during the time of the April 25 phone call, later returned to the U.S. and was placed on administrative leave on May 1, and dismissed from her job on May 17, “after new information was discovered and brought before the supervisors,” a township release stated.
During separate interviews with Stevens, Leff and Hoffman, all three used the word “Triage” to describe the events that quickly followed the April 25 phone call that led them to keep a township together in the throes of controversy.
In a way, it is the perfect word to describe the plans that followed the announcement. As defined by Webster’s, “Triage” is “the assigning of priority order to projects on the basis of where funds and resources can be best used or are most needed.” Stevens said that his first sense of the word in action came as early as that evening, when he met with Leff and Hoffman. Over the next several days, he also met with representatives from the Chester County District Attorney’s Office, Kennett Township Police Chief Lydell Nolt, and employment and legal counsel for the township.
One meeting took place in the conference room at Lyons, Dougherty, LLC.
“We talked through what was happening and what needed to happen,” Stevens said. “There was an investigation beginning, and there were lots of steps necessary that needed to happen, in order to tie down all of the township's bank accounts – to lock them down and secure the township’s assets.
“There was also the necessity of securing the stability of the ongoing business of the township, financially and operationally. I started thinking through all of the steps that I would be concerned about closing, to make sure that this was under control.”
Suddenly, the three elected officials were no longer merely operating as general overseers of a township, but were now volunteers in an “All in” mission to assist township staff. For the next several weeks, they racked up dozens of dawn-to-dusk workdays. They conducted staff meetings and held executive sessions, wrote township checks, maintained employee payroll systems, and communicated with vendors and organizations.
For Hoffman, it meant dividing her time between the township and her job as an online media marketing professional. For Stevens, helping in the township’s transition involved a lot of late evenings, and for Leff, a medical doctor, it meant juggling time between his career and the needs of the township.
“We had to learn a lot about the nuts and bolts of the banking system and meet all of those requirements, in a very short period of time,” Leff said. “We all kept each other informed because we all had to remain on the same page, from executive sessions to getting the business of the township done.”
“There are so many great people who work for the township, and they needed to know that we had their backs, and that we were going to do it personally,” Hoffman said. “It was getting their opinion on everything regarding current projects and what needed to be done on a day-to-day basis. A township manager is a conduit to everything happening in the township, and it helped connect all of us to the people who help the township run.”
In May, the board hired Alison Rudolf as interim township manager [a search for a permanent township manager is underway and is expected to be finalized by August], and also hired Francis to tighten up the township’s communications.
“I was concerned about the quality and character of the communication with the public,” Stevens said. “Because we were under constraints about what we could and couldn't say, I wanted to make sure we had someone who is objective and professional who could guide us in what we in fact did say. It was our concern for having precision and having accuracy in our communication, shared in a very structured way.”
Based on Rudolf’s recommendation – and as a measure of caution -- the board approved a resolution at their June 19 meeting to change all township accounts at Fulton Bank in order to have new account numbers on every bank account, and to authorize that all township checks will require at least one supervisor’s signature on all township checks, exclusively.
“All of [these procedures] had been in place before, but what we have done is change the accounts so that there is a clear distinction between the pre-transition accounts and the auditor accounts,” Stevens said. “We've always required two signatures for checks over $2,000. The only thing we've done is taken off Lisa as a signer and not included Alison in her place, so instead of the [township manager] and a few supervisors, it's only the three supervisors now.”
‘It is about actions’
No matter the length of distance Stevens, Leff and Hoffman profess to being removed from the fingerprints of this investigation, they are the most visible faces of the township and therefore linked to this potential crime by virtue of association. It’s an accusation that Stevens does not enjoy hearing.
“If you want to speculate and look for numbers to help your conspiracy, there is none,” he said. “I understand the suggestion that anybody who is remotely connected to the event gets splashed by whatever it is that is tossed in the pond. I understand that, and at some point – not now – we will be able to review all of the details of what happened, and the significance of it.
“There's no reason whether [anyone] should not continue to trust us to continue to do the things that we've been doing. The guilt is not going to splash back on us. None of us are responsible for what happened, and when the facts come out, you will be able to understand it better.
“When we are able to reveal that, we will be in a position to be able to respond to those [accusations] in a significant way. I have every intention when that time comes to disclose [the facts of the investigations] – as candidly and as openly and as transparently as possible. The township residents can trust us to do what is necessary. There have been a few people with whom I have shared the depths of my emotions on this, but this is not about emotions. It is about actions.”
“Anytime something goes wrong, there is a natural inclination for any of us to ask, ‘Could I have done something in the past?’” Leff said. “Coming into the supervisory roles, we had put more in place in terms of processes, but when you find out that those processes aren’t followed, the question is, ‘How do you find out how that happened?’ That’s what we’re doing now.”
In a May 22 Chester County Press letter to the editor, Hunter Tower, the Republican candidate for Kennett Township supervisor and Leff’s opponent in the upcoming election, wrote an opinion piece entitled, “Kennett Township Supervisors: A lack of leadership and transparency.” In it, he railed against his opponent’s contribution to a false sense of openness and transparency that included Leff’s disregard for tax increases and out-of-control spending. Tower also included criticism of how the supervisors were handling the fraud investigation.
He attended the May 15 supervisors meeting.
“The [board] made her [Moore] look guilty by their public action, which may well become a problem on its own,” Tower wrote. “We are left with no understanding as to the scope of the problem or how long it has gone on. Was it for a few thousand dollars or $500,000? Surely they would give us a range; after all, it is our tax money. So much for transparency.”
As he heads into what will likely be a November election day guaranteed to have the fraud investigation hanging over him like an albatross, Leff, a Democrat who was elected to his first six-year term on Nov. 5, 2013 after defeating Republican candidate Jim Przywitowski, said he will place the focus of his campaign on the township’s accomplishments during his tenure.
“From a strategic point a view, it gives my opponent something to say, but when I think about what to we're doing now, it doesn't affect me,” he said of Tower’s comments. “What we as supervisors can do is to be as clear and open every step of the way.
“One can create all sorts of stories, but I’m focused on keeping the township running and during my campaign, I’ll talk about the good things we’ve done for the township, and at the end of the day, let the voters decide.”
While the twin reports by the DA’s Office and the forensic auditor are still a few months from being completed, none of the supervisors deny that the residue of this investigation has already tossed a black cloud tarpaulin over the governance of Kennett Township, nor do they reject the belief that the findings of these reports will further yield even more hard questions that will draw local, regional and national media attention to the little hamlet of 8,000 residents.
“Because we've been doing the business of the township, I am not concerned about whether or not we have taken the appropriate action,” Hoffman said. “I know we have taken the appropriate action. Unfortunately, because of the investigation, it will be a long time before everybody else learns the details of it.
“It's frustrating for [Scudder, Rich and I] that we can't take everybody with us on this emotional journey, but I’m confident that once we get through this process, we will have cleared up everything that’s hiding under the rug. I am also confident that we as a township are going to be much better for having gone through this process.”
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email email@example.com.