The city of West Haven paid more than $182,000 over the past two years to two women who are linked to Michael DiMassa, the former state Democratic lawmaker and municipal employee who was accused last fall of stealing federal COVID-19 relief funds.
Newly released documents from the city show that more than $147,000 in taxpayer money went to Lauren Knox, who wed DiMassa in October 2021, just before he was arrested by the FBI and charged with federal wire fraud.
DiMassa’s signature appears on all of the payment vouchers.
Knox and Pocock did not respond to calls and emails for this story. Neither did DiMassa or his defense attorney, John Gulash. West Haven’s finance director, Frank Cieplinski, also did not respond to an email seeking comment.
West Haven Mayor Nancy Rossi on Tuesday denied any prior knowledge of the payments to Knox or Pocock, and she said all of the payments to the women could be considered “fraudulent.”
“This is fraud. It shouldn’t have happened. But it did happen,” Rossi said.
“This was a theft, like thefts happen in banks, like thefts happen in financial institutions,” Rossi said. “We are doing our best to correct it and move forward.”
It isn’t clear if those payments are part of any ongoing investigation.
A member of the state’s Municipal Accountability Review Board, which has overseen West Haven’s finances since 2018, also raised concerns about the transactions.
Patrick Egan said the payments to the two women should prompt the state to order a comprehensive review of every contract and expense approved by the city over the past three years.
“I think every expenditure of that city, probably for the last 36 months, should be audited and justified,” said Egan, who has been an outspoken critic of West Haven’s government for several years.
Egan attributed the questionable expenditures to the lack of controls within West Haven government and the failure of the city’s elected leaders to get their finances in order. Those are problems that auditors and MARB members have been pointing out for years, he said.
“This is a problem from the top down,” Egan said. “The fact is, there has just been a continued failure to be good stewards of the taxpayer money in West Haven.”
$12,500 worth of tote bags
Knox and Pocock were paid for a variety of services and supplies, according to the invoices and payment vouchers.
The documents show Knox was paid for a “youth violence prevention program.” She billed the city through that program for various travel costs, staffing costs, personal protective equipment, computer equipment and services that are described as “in-home counseling” and “students with special needs.”
One of the payment vouchers suggested that program ended in October 2020, and an invoice included a notation that reads “As instructed by City – No new Individuals will be accepted into 20/21 Program Year.”
But Knox continued to bill the city long after that point, reporting that the extra money she charged was for “additional costs,” “program fees,” and “COVID-19 overage charges.”
West Haven’s annual audit from 2020 shows the city received nearly $113,000 in grant funding from the state’s Judicial Branch to cover expenses related to youth violence prevention initiatives. But it’s unclear from the city’s records whether the payments that went to Knox came from that grant.
The violence prevention grant money from the state, Rossi said, was intended to go to things like summer camps for kids and other related activities. But she didn’t know whether that was the fund from which Knox was paid.
The $34,250 Pocock received, on the other hand, was largely for materials, which the city’s records referred to as an “essential supplies giveaway.”
Invoices from Pocock show charges for 5,000 bottles of hand sanitizer at $1.25 each, 10,000 hand sanitizer wipes at $0.20 each, 10,000 cotton face masks at $0.50 each, 5,000 waterproof containers to hold vaccine cards at $1.30 each, and 5,000 tote bags — at $2.50 each — branded for West Haven’s centennial celebration last year.
It’s unclear why Pocock’s company, which operates under the name Koda Lane, was chosen to supply those items to the city. Her business’s website shows that it specializes in women’s clothing, skin care products and fashion accessories.
DiMassa’s authority and the lack of bids
The checks that were cut to the two women are also raising questions about why DiMassa had such a free hand in spending tens of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money.
Rossi could not answer why DiMassa, who was an hourly employee, was able to sign off on payment vouchers within the city government, even though that power is supposed to rest with the heads of each city department.
In December 2020, the city council appointed DiMassa to oversee roughly $1.1 million in federal CARES Act funding, of which he is now accused of stealing more than half.
But that doesn’t explain why he was able to sign off on the payments to Knox and Pocock. Many of the payments issued to Knox, for instance, were approved long before the council gave DiMassa authority over the CARES Act funding.
According to Rossi, the business deals that the two women entered into with the city were never offered to other companies, as West Haven’s laws require.
The city’s charter mandates that any supply or service contract that is valued at more than $10,000 should be put out for bid so the city can sort through competing offers and get the best price for taxpayers.
There are exemptions to those rules in the case of emergencies, but if the city wants to sidestep the public bidding process and hand-pick a company, the mayor is required to sign off on the move.
The city’s department leaders are also required to explain to the city council in writing why normal purchasing procedures could not be followed.
There is no evidence that ever happened.
“Any contracts over $10,000 in the city of West Haven are supposed to go out to bid,” Rossi said, “but again, if you’re committing fraud, you’re not going to go through the proper channels.”
Former West Haven Mayor Ed O’Brien, who was defeated in a Democratic primary election by Rossi in 2017, said there was obviously a serious breakdown in the city’s finance department.
West Haven’s elected leaders, he said, need to investigate why nobody within the city’s finance department halted the payment vouchers that had DiMassa’s signature on them.
“If I was currently the mayor, that’s where I would investigate first,” said O’Brien, who announced another run for mayor last year but did not make it onto the ballot after missing a deadline to register. “How does that happen? How does an hourly employee just sign off on a voucher?”
“Maybe him being a state representative, they just looked the other way,” he said, “or they thought he had the authority to do that. But he was not a department head.”
DiMassa is due back in federal court on March 10.