Rockland corruption probe hampered by lack of digital records

Spring Valley Mayor Noramie Jasmin and Deputy Mayor Spring Valley Mayor Noramie Jasmin and Deputy Mayor Joseph A. Desmaret plead not guilty to corruption at federal court in White Plains. (April 23, 2013) Photo Credit: Lili Holzer-Glier/ Charlie Eckert

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In the wake of a federal corruption probe that produced indictments against Spring Valley Mayor Noramie Jasmin and Deputy Mayor Joseph A. Desmaret, village workers are now cleaning up a mess of paperwork -- in areas where municipalities elsewhere already rely on digital records.

The absence of digital record keeping is proving to be a hindrance not only in answering federal subpoenas for records -- but in keeping up with everyday work, informed sources say.

"The feds requested all village documents and minutes from meetings since Jasmin started," said one source working within village hall, who wished to remain anonymous. "We gave them all we have, but there's a lot missing -- a lot of stuff we just don't have."

Spring Valley trustee Demeza Delhomme said the village has been run "backwards" for years and is now focused on organization and "relearning the basics."

"I'm not going to blame anyone that was there before because they didn't organize the papers correctly and didn't do everything that they were supposed do," Delhomme said. "I'm not going to defend Mayor Jasmin, but the village was disorganized for years. It's something she got into and she didn't know how to fix it. So she get into trouble, she get into a big problem."

Jasmin and Desmaret have been indicted on charges of racketeering, wire fraud and interference in interstate commerce, for allegedly taking bribes to use their influence to further a community center project that was to be built on village land -- a project Jasmin stood to profit from.

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"We're in the process of fixing everything that was broke," Delhomme said. "I'm in the village hall almost every day trying to work with everybody to see what we can do and make sure what happened to the village never happens again."

MAKING INVESTIGATIONS 'DIFFICULT'

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Rockland County District Attorney Thomas Zugibe -- whose office played a key role in the Spring Valley investigation -- said the abundance of paper documents throughout the county creates challenges he hopes to avoid in the coming years.

"A lot of times when you need records, it's very difficult for us to dig back. Say we need a file from 10 years ago. Should that be such a major project?" Zugibe asked.

Since February, Zugibe has announced two extensive cases of fraud, where residents have been accused of pilfering hundreds of thousands of dollars in county and state funds. Some 500 Rockland homeowners were charged with defrauding the New York State School Tax Relief program out of $679,000 -- by filing for a tax exemption multiple times -- while 14 people were accused of illegally obtaining $229,000 in county child care subsidies.

The Rockland County Department of Social Services keeps digital case files -- which made it easier to do a sweep across the board for child care fraud -- Zugibe said. The school tax investigation was more difficult, he said, as only the Town of Ramapo had top flight digital records on homes and property taxes.

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"That's why you see a disproportionate number out of Ramapo -- it's because they had the ability to pull up computer documents that you can actually do cross-checks against other states," said Zugibe. "Where the other towns are still working out of boxes using hard copies. It makes it very difficult to do any type of global search."

GETTING CAUGHT UP

When state Sen. David Carlucci (D-Rockland/Orange) served as the town clerk for Clarkstown, he was able to get nearly $50,000 from the state in local government improvement grants, which he says are available to every taxing entity each year. He used the money to get all the records in the clerk's office -- including land records dating back to 1752 -- onto a computer between 2006 and 2008.

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"With technology, we could save a lot of time and make it so much easier for people to do more research and make documents more transparent," Carlucci said. "Now, people have to go through records by hand and do the research -- it's time-consuming and there's bound to be mistakes."

Carlucci suggested that digital records could save Rockland municipalities a lot of money, eliminating hours spent digging through archived documents -- sometimes several hours in search of a single death certificate. Zugibe agreed.

"The archiving fees are unbelievable," Zugibe said. "You can't believe how much you pay to store a file, hard copies of files, when you don't have to. You can have it all sitting on one hard drive instead of a building."

A Newsday investigation in Spring Valley uncovered gaping holes in the village's records. It showed that fire inspections hadn't been done in the village since 2000, putting the lives of 125 volunteer firefighter and residents in some 5,000 apartments at risk. Handwritten notes on violations at Avon Gardens -- a 196-unit apartment complex that was allowed to deteriorate over the years -- dwindled around 1994. Complaint logs were said to have been misplaced.

Without digital record keeping, government employees and elected officials may escape accountability, while those with ulterior motives may find it easier to conduct shady business without leaving a solid trace, Zugibe said.

"They know like anyone else how difficult it is to try and reconstruct something if it's in an old format as opposed to electronic," Zugibe said. He adds, "The lack of searchable databases and digitizing records basically was an obstacle to many investigations."

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