Councilman Carlos Garcia submitted his letter of resignation to Mayor David Delle Donna Wednesday after it was learned that the 41-year-old Garcia had allegedly accepted advances on his part-time $4,400-per-year council salary from former CFO and township treasurer John Florentino. The town is looking at possible other irregularities in the town's finances.
The transaction was discovered during an annual audit of township expenses conducted by the firm of Ferrioli, Wilcox, Cerrullo and Cuva of Pompton Plains.
"While doing the audit, the auditors saw something that they didn't think was quite right," Delle Donna said. "We told the auditors to check into the matter and they discovered this apparent discrepancy."
Although township officials would not divulge the amount of money involved, they did agree on one thing. They said that Garcia, a native of Guttenberg who enjoyed being part of the political scene, was guilty of trusting Florentino.
"In my personal opinion, Carlos showed extremely bad judgment," Delle Donna said. "In my heart, I don't believe it was more than that. But we have a zero tolerance policy in the town. We just believed that it would be beneficial to the town and to himself if he just relieved himself of his duties."
Florentino, who was given a four-year contract at $30,000 annually by former mayor Peter LaVilla when he was hired as the township's CFO in 1999, had resigned from his position in Guttenberg last September.
"We had reasons back then to question what he was doing," said Delle Donna. "When we took office, we were concerned with his sloppiness and his record keeping. We were paying a state-certified CFO and then our auditors spotted something we might not have recognized. He [Florentino] had to be responsible for balancing our books."
Florentino also was the chief financial officer in Kearny until Jan. 20, when he was suspended without pay for allegedly misappropriating funds in that city. Florentino tried to resign from his position in Kearny, but Kearny officials opted to reject the resignation in order to pursue disciplinary charges to have him dismissed.
Neither Florentino nor Garcia returned phone calls.
The problems apparently stem from an overabundance of manually written checks from the township's payroll account, bypassing the automated payroll system installed for township employees.
It was discovered during the audit of records from July 1, 2000 to the present.
"When they [the auditors] told us about what was happening, we looked into it deeper and determined that we had to conduct our own investigation," Delle Donna said. "We are turning over the information we have gathered to the Hudson County Prosecutor's Office for further review and we will continue to do whatever is prudent in this investigation."
Township officials became leery of the situation when it was discovered that Florentino had approved at least 40 emergency payroll checks to be issued over 18 months. The total amount of money involved with the emergency checks was not revealed. Not all of the checks involve Garcia.
"It's nothing that will affect the budget," Delle Donna said. "We found it and we're investigating any appearance of impropriety."
"[The emergency checks] sent up the white flag," Inclan said. "It was an exorbitant amount of manually cut payroll checks."
Inclan said that perhaps as many as 10 emergency payroll checks are usually issued during that time period. Inclan also said that because of this finding, the town's financial records may have to be checked back to even before the year 2000.
Delle Donna wanted to stress that the township is conducting its own investigation into the matter and will cooperate fully with the Hudson County Prosecutor's Office.
Turned over to authorities
Councilman Gerald Drasheff, who is an attorney, recommended that the matter be turned over to the Prosecutor's Office for further review.
"The second we knew something might have been wrong, we reported it," Drasheff said. "It's a matter that we cannot ignore. We have to let the proper authorities handle it."
"Our policy has been to find whatever it us and turn it over to the authorities," Delle Donna said. "It's out of our hands now. It's up to the Prosecutor's Office."
Delle Donna said that he was startled and upset when the auditors returned with the results of their investigation. "I was shocked," Delle Donna said. "Obviously, Carlos is a friend and we feel bad for him. But we had to do what was right."
"We've all been sick about this for about three weeks, when we first found out," Inclan said. "Carlos is a dear friend. And no one loved serving Guttenberg more. He loved his role as councilman."
"He was obviously very upset about the whole thing," Delle Donna said. "But he agreed that this was in best interest of the town at this time."
Delle Donna said that Garcia's seat will be filled by the end of the month by an appointee. The members of the Hudson County Democratic Committee will forward three names to Delle Donna and the remaining members of the Town Council within the next 15 days. The council will then decide on the next council member from those three candidates.