EDITORIAL: The real cost

IT WASN’T A BIG HEIST. As criminal behavior goes, it wasn’t a heist at all. Two people working for the same village took advantage of their positions and, with a steady drip-drip-drip, paid their own expenses with money that wasn’t theirs.

The story held the promise of mystery and romance. Call it “The Treasurer and the Police Chief” if you like. But keep your imagination in check. No one in a position to know has even hinted that there was anything other than coincidence and opportunity that connects the two subjects at the same time in the same town hall.

And if that weren’t enough to douse suspicions of misbehavior more entertaining than “scamming” employers, consider the indisputable hero of the tale. He is none other than the state comptroller, who assigned his staff to figure out why the things didn’t add up in the Village of Chatham.

The treasurer in this epic is Barbara Henry, who served for several years as treasurer of the Village of Chatham, an appointed position. In September of this year she pleaded guilty to taking more than $4,000 in public funds between April 2017 and 2018 and of falsely altering public records pertaining to health insurance premiums.

Investigators working on the case also discovered that Ms. Henry had stolen over $8,000 between October 2014 and December 2020 from a non-profit organization in Great Barrington, MA, where she also worked.

Here’s an odd thing about this case: What drew the attention of state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and his staff were demands by the state and federal agencies for payment of withholding taxes for village employees. It turned out that the money the village owed was deposited in the village bank account. It just hadn’t been sent. Sending it was apparently Ms. Henry’s job.

Over the course of several village meetings the bad news got worse. Then early one gray January morning in 2019 State Police and Comptroller’s Office agents suddenly appeared at the Tracy Memorial Village Hall. They closed the building and seized village computers. Police also searched Ms. Henry’s home.

Notably absent were Chatham Police.

It’s a small department but it had high visibility. At a peak time in the opioid overdose crisis, part-time Chief Peter Volkmann had instituted a program called Chatham Cares 4U. It allowed people with substance abuse disorders to hand over drugs and drug paraphernalia at the Chatham Police office and accept a ride to the nearest available treatment center in a police car with a village officer at the wheel.

A few years after initiating the program, Chief Volkmann ran for Columbia County sheriff. I endorsed him. He lost.

Something may have been on the police computers. Whatever the source, Mr. Volkmann plead guilty to two charges in February 2021. District Attorney Paul Czajka said that as police chief of the Village of Chatham and earlier as Town of Stockport police chief, Mr. Volkmann stole over $74,000 from the New York State Retirement System. Mr. Volkman also admitted filing over $18,000 in false mileage vouchers and other reimbursements from the Village of Chatham. The charges were fourth-degree grand larceny, a class E felony, and official misconduct, a misdemeanor. In July, County Judge Richard Koweek ordered Mr. Volkmann to pay a total of $92,829. He’s no longer a police chief.

Barbara Henry and Peter Volkmann paid back the money that law enforcement knows they stole. They’ve paid fines that by some formula determined their debt, including at least some of the cost of the investigation and legal proceedings. They didn’t receive prison sentences. Their crimes were not violent. It’s reassuring that they have been barred from holding public office.

Maybe Ms. Henry and Mr. Volkmann will understand the worst aspect of their crimes is that they have strengthened those who insist that government is corrupt, that democracy can’t work because they know better than the suckers and the experts. The cost of that threat to our freedoms is too big to calculate and too dangerous to ignore.

Comments are closed.