Latham special education service accused of bilking state
LATHAM A Latham-based special education service could be facing criminal charges after a state audit revealed improper billing.
The directors of Achievements PLLC allegedly billed the state for more than $180,000 for expenses that weren’t covered, including some that enriched the staff, the directors and their families, according to an audit by the state Comptroller’s Office that was released Tuesday. The findings of the audit have been referred to the Albany County District Attorney’s Office.
“Money that should be spent solely on students is instead being wasted, misspent or even pocketed by certain special education contractors to enrich themselves,” state Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli said in a statement. “It’s clear the system for monitoring these dollars is broken and taxpayers are paying the price. The parents and children who rely on special education programs deserve better, and taxpayers have the right to know their money is being well-spent.
“It is clear from a series of audits done by my office that the state’s special education program needs a thorough review.”
The Comptroller’s Office is in the process of completing a review of the state Education Department’s handling of New York’s special education program, which gets $2 billion to serve about 37,000 students. This audit was prompted by a series of red flags collected in previous audits, which found many cases of private contractors who cheated the system and cost taxpayers millions of dollars.
The incident in Latham is the latest example of fraud, as auditors disallowed $182,590 in claimed costs from Achievements. The expenditures were made during a five-year period that ended in the summer of 2010.
Investigators found almost $70,000 in improper claims for goods and services for the company’s director and family. These expenditures included a $12,616 bill for an entertainment center, hotels and airfare to locations like Walt Disney World. They also tried to claim music tickets, fencing, a dishwasher and a gym membership.
“These types of egregious examples of public dollars diverted for blatant personal benefit should be detected and stopped much sooner through effective state oversight and monitoring by the state Education Department,” DiNapoli said.
Auditors believe the company tried to hide these costs by distributing them to various accounts.
Achievements’ lawyers, in a response to the audit, said it contained factual inaccuracies.
“We observe a number of troubling inconsistencies in the auditors’ protocols,” wrote Pamela Madeiros on behalf of Achievements.
She also rejected the principle allegation of the audit surrounding purchases made for the personal benefit of Achievements’ employees and their family members.
“In many cases Achievements provided ample evidence that goods and services were both acquired and used for educational purposes,” Madeiros wrote.
She added that there were some exceptions, which were blamed on human error and oversight.
She touched on the entertainment center, which she said was installed at the company owner’s residence and charged to the state by mistake.