Former West Haven finance director testifies on falsified invoices in DiMassa fraud scandal
New Haven Register (CT)
Nov. 23—WEST HAVEN — Frank Cieplinski, the city's former finance director of three years who was terminated in the aftermath of a scandal stemming from a former state representative's theft of more than $1 million in federal pandemic relief funding, testified Tuesday about how he could have missed it all.
Cieplinski was the government's eighth witness in the trial for John Trasacco, a contractor who is alleged to have received $431,982 from West Haven through two companies he controls for goods and services he did not provide to the city.
Former Democratic state Rep. Michael DiMassa has pleaded guilty, admitting to submitting and signing the payment vouchers for fraudulent invoices to Trasacco's companies L & H Company LLC and JIL Sanitation Solutions LLC. His guilty plea to three counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud also covers his role in similar schemes conducted in partnership with his now-wife, Lauren DiMassa, and former city employee John Bernardo. Lauren DiMassa and Bernardo each have pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. A jury trial for Trasacco, who had pleaded not guilty, began Monday.
Cieplinski, who was the only witness to testify throughout the 7.5-hour scheduled trial date Tuesday, affixed his signature to vouchers for payment that were based upon fraudulent invoices, including invoices made out to Compass Investment Group, a shell company with DiMassa and Bernardo as principals.
Cieplinski said he was "a victim of the politics of West Haven" at his termination because "someone needed to take the fall for this."
"There were fraudulent vouchers put through that were paid, and that was the situation I was blamed for," he said.
It was noted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Ray Miller that the voucher documents signed by Cieplinski say, "This is to certify that funds are available for this payment" above the line for the finance director's signature. Cieplinski said his role was to verify and confirm that the city had funds available to pay for its vouchers, and that he would take a department head's signature to mean that they attested to the accuracy of the document.
"Michael DiMassa indicated it was a valid invoice," he said when asked about his signature on multiple vouchers presented in court.
Federal defender Tracy Hayes said Cieplinski had intended to make changes to how the city does business but was "met with pushback;" Cieplinski agreed. Cieplinski agreed that the finance department was understaffed, so DiMassa was expected to carry out important financial duties as a mayoral designee to manage the federal pandemic funds.
As they did with seven city employees who testified Monday, defense counsel established that Cieplinski did not have personal knowledge of any services or goods provided to the city of West Haven by JIL Sanitation Solutions LLC or L & H Company LLC, but he could never be positive whether someone else had received the services or interacted with vendors.
Cieplinski's testimony was expected to continue Wednesday.
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