Township hires law firm to help recoup possible losses in suspicious transactions
● By Richard Gaw
While two investigations exploring allegations of fraud in Kennett Township move into its sixth month, the township's board of supervisors took action at their Sept. 4 meeting to help protect the township from any possible financial losses the could result from suspicious transactions.
The board authorized the motion to authorize the execution of an engagement letter hiring the Philadelphia law firm of Blank Rome as special counsel to pursue any civil liability associated with the investigation.
Township solicitor David Sander said that securing a legal firm is a “critical and proactive step to take, considering that the DA investigates criminal behavior, but there certainly may be some civil entities that the township should avail itself of. We need to be prepared for that if there are.”
Headquartered in Philadelphia, Blank Rome has 13 locations and 600 attorneys throughout the U.S. and Shanghai, who represent businesses and organizations ranging from Fortune 500 companies to start-up entities around the globe.
“The result of criminal investigation doesn't always result in a township being made whole financially,” Sander said. “In a criminal case, there can be an order of payment of restitution, but you don't know whether you're going to get that. By taking this action, the board is attempting to have a sophisticated law firm in a position to recover any funds that are determined to have been inappropriately used or spent.
“This particular lawyer [from Blank Rome] specializes in trying to recoup any losses that the township may have suffered as a result of these suspicious transactions,” Sander added.
The announcement served as the latest notch of news in an on-going investigation that began on April 25, when supervisors Dr. Richard Leff, Whitney Hoffman and chairman Scudder Stevens were first notified by the fraud department at the township's bank that its officers had found a number of suspicious transactions on township accounts. Soon after, the township began issuing statements about all updates related to the investigation and action being taken by the township.
On May 11, the supervisors wrote that they carefully reviewed the findings with the bank, legal and law enforcement representatives and immediately referred the matter to the Chester County District Attorney’s Office. Also, steps were taken to make sure no further unauthorized transactions take place.
On May 14, former township manager Lisa Moore was placed on paid administrative leave, and in an official release issued on May 20, the supervisors announced that they dismissed Moore from her job. On June 5, Stevens read a brief joint statement that said that the investigation was in the final stages of securing records and documents from both internal and external sources, and that the DA's Office and forensic auditor were in the process of analyzing and qualifying those documents, a process which would he continue for a period of some months – and is still in progress.
On June 19, Stevens said the investigation included interviews with township staff, but did not specify which township employees or officials were interviewed.
Reading from a prepared statement at the start of the Sept. 6 meeting, Stevens updated those in attendance about the separate investigations being conducted by the Chester County District Attorney's Office and Marcum, LLP, the forensic accountant hired by the township. While he did not reveal any new information, Stevens said that “these kinds of investigations take time.”
“When that time comes – and it is not here yet – we want very much to be able to share with you whatever the public portions of the findings are – and discuss those findings,” he said. “We are preparing for that time and how best to discuss and communicate those findings – and what is appropriate for us to do.
“I also want to remind everyone again that the timing of both investigations is not under our control, nor is the time when they will conclude and report their findings,” he said. “They will tell us when their investigations are complete and what their findings are – and what, if any, further actions should be taken – not the other way around.”
Stevens assured the township residents that they will continue to be kept informed of the investigation's progress, and that it will be the intention of the supervisors to share what he called “the public portions” of the investigation's findings when it concludes. In defining what “public portions” means, Stevens said that there could be other factors related to the investigation that will relate to the next steps the DA will take, which would require the need to keep that information from the general public.
“I have assured everybody that we will be completely open on this matter, but if the DA says we can't go into [a particular component of the investigation's findings], then [we] can't go there,” Stevens said.
As to whether the township, the District Attorney or Marcum, LLP will be the ultimate source of these investigative findings, Sander said that it is likely the news will come from the DA first.
“I will say that the District Attorney's Office operates as an office of the county, and they decide when and where they say, whenever they say, so anything that comes from them, you will hear it from them first before you hear it from this board,” Sander said.
“Regarding the forensic accountant, he is a professional consultant for the board of supervisors, and I would think that his ultimate findings, conclusions and recommendations will be disseminated by this board, when they are complete.”
Future plans for Spar Hill Farm
In other business, the board approved entering the township into a contract with the township engineer related to the future use of the 103-acre Spar Hill Farm on 438 Burnt Mill Road, which the township officially purchased on Nov. 7, 2018 for $3.2 million, of which $1 million was paid for by a grant the township received from the Mt. Cuba Center.
The approval gives the township engineer the authorization to draft the appropriate recommendations – as created by two township groups – that would lead to the advertising for bids for the eventual demolition and preservation of various structures on the farm.
In a presentation to the board, township administrator Michael O'Brien said that the Spar Hill Task Force recommended that the property continue to be used primarily by the township as open space dedicated to passive recreation, and that the township save a smoke house and a 1930s grain bin silo, as well as several foundations of structures on the property. It also recommended that nearly two dozen other structures on the property be demolished, which include a primary residence, several barns, sheds and silos, and a slaughterhouse, for the reason that the costs of refurbishing and maintaining them are not reasonable for the township to bear.
The task force said that some portions of the structures should be retained, including stone walls and foundations that will be able to retain certain elements of the farm, as well as installing trails conducive to bicycling, walking and possibly horseback riding.
The task force also recommended that the property continue to be farmed, while also developing a sustainable land stewardship program; and that the township should consider active recreation possibilities, amenities like restrooms and pavilions and parking, and explore the possibility of incorporating alternate energy on the property, such as solar panels.
The township's Historical Commission's recommendations generously overlapped those of the task force: Repair the smoke house; look into saving the 1930s grain bin/silo near the farm house, in order for it to potentially be used for displaying arm artifacts as a mini museum; and explore the possibility of retaining and renovating some safe-standing foundations throughout the property, “which would help establish an image of the farm that once was.”
O'Brien also shared the findings of a report of the farm that was conducted by Breckstone Architecture, a Wilmington-based architectural, engineering, interior design and project management firm, to determine the structural stability of the property's buildings. The firm recommended that the township should retain eight buildings on the farm, including the smoke house, the main residence, a silo foundation, a small shed, as well as some fencing.
Interim township manager Alison Rudolf responded to a question from the audience that was asked at the board's Aug. 21 meeting, related to the status of the historic Chandler Mill Bridge, which is now owned by the township and is scheduled to undergo extensive renovations that will transform it into a pedestrian bridge that will include emergency vehicle access. Rudolf said that the township is scheduled to receive a full report on the plans – including project timelines and cost estimates – from the township engineer in the next week, and a full report will be on the agenda for the Sept. 18 meeting.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email firstname.lastname@example.org.