Saturday, June 20, 2009

Ulster County investigating division of Health Department

Freeman staff

KINGSTON — The discovery of $32,000 in uncashed checks in a safe at the Ulster County Department of Health — whose director was let go last week — is among the reasons a full-scale audit of the department’s Environmental Sanitation Division has been launched, County Executive Michael Hein said on Friday.

In addition to the checks, which were made out to the county and dated as early as 2000, the safe at the sanitation division’s Flatbush Avenue office in Kingston contained health permits for such business and restaurants and camps that were made out but never issued, Hein said, as well as about $300 in cash.

“A significant amount of material was in there,” Hein said.

The materials were discovered on June 11, just hours after Hein placed county Public Health Director Dean Palen on “ad-ministrative leave.” Hein said the safe was behind the desk of Palen’s wife, Deborah, who until recently worked as Palen’s administrative assistant.

Hein stopped short of calling the matter criminal but said county District Attorney Holley Carnright has been made “aware” of the situation.

“I will not tolerate anything that even gives the perception of potential financial irregularities,” Hein said. “We have not ruled out anything at this point. I am a big believer of shining the bright light on things like this and addressing them immediately.”

Neither Palen nor his wife could be reached for comment on Friday.

The county executive said there were 150 uncashed checks in the safe and that they ranged in value from $15 to $1,100. He said the audit of the Environmental Sanitation Division will be completed “as soon as possible” by county Comptroller Elliott Auerbach and the state Health Department.

Auerbach said the investigation will focus, among other things, on whether the public was put in any danger because of the division’s failure to issue permits to businesses that are required to have them.

“Has the public been put in harm’s way?” Auerbach said.

The comptroller said the probe also will focus on what can be done to have better controls in place in the future, and he pledged that “we are going to look at this is a very non-judgmental way.”

Auerbach said he expects to have a plan of action for the investigation in place by Monday.

Hein and Auerbach are Democrats who were elected last fall and took office in January, when the county’s new charter went into effect. Palen was appointed public health director in 1994 when Republicans controlled the county government.

County Legislature Minority Leader Glenn Noonan, a Republican from Gardiner, said if there were any irregularities in the Health Department, Hein — who served as the appointed county administrator before the job of county executive was created — should have known about them.

Noonan said the probe might have started “as a witch hunt, but now they are starting to hit some dirt.”

Regardless of whether the discovery of the uncashed checks and unissued permits played a role in Palen’s dismissal, his days as public health director were numbered because the new charter mandates the Health Department be led by a medical doctor. Palen is not an M.D.

Palen’s annual salary at the time of his removal was $102,847. The Legislature must set the salary for the health director who will succeed him, but the lawmaking body last week rejected a committee’s recommendation that the new leader be paid between $120,000 and $175,000 per year.

In the interim, the Health Department is being led by Nereida Veytia, a registered nurse who has been serving as the department’s director of patient services.