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Comptroller says improper records handling has been known since last year

(Derek Gee/Buffalo News) Stefan Mychajliw talks to reporters after winning election as Erie County comptroller at the Avant in downtown Buffalo, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012.

In response to claims that top Erie County administrators were unaware of the improper disposal of confidential social services records until April, a social services employee said last week that she and other employees complained about the matter as early as October, said Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw.

“We have reason to believe, based on what employees are telling us, that the administration was made aware of this last year,” he said.

Meanwhile, the County Executive’s Office is demanding the return of numerous unsecured social services documents that are now in the possession of the Comptroller’s Office.

“Currently, the county executive is looking into whether holding onto those documents constitutes a punishable offense, which could result in fines against Erie County,” said Peter Anderson, spokesman for County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz.

The County Legislature will hold a committee hearing Tuesday regarding the improper disposal of confidential records.

Last month, Deputy County Executive Richard Tobe sent a letter to the comptroller seeking the return of confidential Department of Social Services records that were scooped up by Mychajliw’s office after being left unsecured in the basement of the Rath Building for eventual trash pickup.

Among the improperly disposed records were copies of birth certificates, personal medical records, Social Security numbers, bank accounts, tax returns, inmate records, payroll information, court records and passports, the comptroller said.

Poloncarz has stated he was unaware of the lax record disposal practices until early April, when the matter came to the administration’s attention.

Mychajliw, however, said a county employee came forward and spoke on Friday and Saturday with his deputy comptroller of the audit.

“She felt her concerns fell on deaf ears so she came to us,” he said.

The employee, whose name is being withheld until the comptroller’s audit is complete, said she and several other employees brought their concerns to the administration’s attention last year during budget hearings before the County Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, Mychajliw said.

The employees also said Social Services Commissioner Carol Dankert-Maurer and former Comptroller David J. Shenk were aware of the lax record security issue, Mychajliw said.

Finally, Mychajliw stated, Poloncarz’s administration was aware that unshredded social services documents were left unprotected on March 15 when two social services workers showed county auditors the storage of the documents in the Rath Building basement.

In response, Anderson said Poloncarz reasserts his position that he was unaware of the improper disposal of records until April.

He also said the county executive is looking into whether Mychajliw is engaging in a punishable offense by holding onto Social Services documents that were not meant for his office to possess.

In response, Mychajliw said those documents are now public documents because county employees threw them in the trash without adequate safeguards. He also raised concerns about the ability of the county to safety secure and destroy them.

“Why would we give them back to an administration that threw them in the trash?” he said. “That’s laughable.”

Anderson said Mychajliw’s point of view may not be in keeping with the law.

“He is not authorized to be holding on to those,” Anderson said.

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