The Blue Hills Fire District in Bloomfield was awarded $120,000 under the federal Payroll Protection Plan — even though the district is funded by taxpayers and, officials said, had as much as $800,000 on hand in mid-2020 when the application was made, a Courant review has found.
With enough money to meet payroll, the federal money was used to give staff and career firefighters an extra week’s pay and stipends to volunteer firefighters, according to Ariel Marzouca Jaunai, who was a commissioner of the Blue Hills Fire District at the time of the application and its chairwoman when it was decided how to distribute the funds. A total of 28 people received funds, according to payroll records.
The decision by a public entity to use funding under a federal program designed to help businesses devastated by the coronavirus pandemic to issue supplemental pay has raised a number of questions — and even accusations of theft leveled during a public meeting.
Marzouca Jaunai’s husband, Vincent, is a firefighter in the district and received a payout of more than $1,400 as part of the PPP award, according to the payroll records. The issue has also raised the question of exactly who authorized fire district’s finance director Errol Bartley to go forward with the application.
Fire district commissioners interviewed by The Courant said they never explicitly authorized Bartley to file an application. The Courant, through a review of federal documents, has also learned that in filing the application for the loan, Bartley did not use the taxpayer ID number of the Blue Hills Fire District, but for a nonprofit organization associated with the district.
Bartley said at a commission meeting that he applied for the loan due to concerns that property tax payments would be deferred. According to documents obtained by The Courant through a Freedom of Information Act request, Bartley’s application to Wells Fargo Bank was to cover salaries for eight paid members of the Blue Hills Fire District and stipends for about two dozen volunteers.
Marzouca Jaunai said the issue of having enough funds to make payroll during the pandemic was brought up at a commissioner’s Zoom meeting in April or May, but said there was no recording of it available. The discussion does not appear in the minutes of the April and May meetings.
Mark Manson, a commissioner who resigned in July, recalled Wednesday that there was a brief discussion about possible payroll issues, but remembered only being told that there were loans that could be accessed.
“We never discussed PPP,” he said. Manson has also taken issue with the fact that it was left to Bartley to decide to apply. “Who gave him the authority?” Any loans over $10,000 have to be presented to the public and approved by the board, he said.
Jacqueline Massey Green, a former chairwoman of the three-member Blue Hills Fire Commission, who lost a bid for reelection last year, said the district also had no need for the loan.
“We had more than enough money in the bank for April, May and June.”
According to fire district minutes, there was more than $950,000 in the bank in March, and in July the district still had almost $370,000. By August, the district had collected 95% of the taxes for its $1.9 million budget.
Despite the questions about the loan, the commission is considering asking for forgiveness for the loan, meaning the extra money received by fire district employees will be handled by American taxpayers rather than being repaid by the district.
The controversy over the loan led to a heated exchange at a commission meeting in October, when Massey Greene leveled accusations of officials “stealing the PPP funds”, according to district meeting minutes. In response, Marzouca Jaunai and Bartley have filed a suit in small claims court seeking $5,000 for defamation.
Massey Green said she is entitled to freedom of speech and that she didn’t mention anyone by name.
“I said ‘you all,’” Massey Greene said Wednesday. “We were not in a crisis to apply for that loan.”
When asked about the lawsuit, Marzouca Jaunai, who has denied receiving any PPP money, said she had “had enough with the baseless accusations — my good name and my integrity does not have a price tag.”
When asked about approving PPP money for her husband and whether she considered recusing herself from the vote to distribute it, Marzouca Jaunai said that “when the commission voted, it was for the entire body, the entire membership, which includes all employees and all volunteers. Lt. Vincent Jaunai is an employee of the District for 15 years.”
Marzouca Jaunai also defended Bartley’s actions, saying that “he took it upon himself to apply for the PPP funds as he was thinking in the best interest of the district just like other districts who have applied and received these funds.”
Bartley did not respond to several requests to comment about the decision to apply for the loan and how the money was used.
Details on the Bloomfield Fire District loan was among the trove of records the Small Business Administration released to comply with an order by a federal judge. Several news organizations sued the SBA when they didn’t release any information in the spring on who got loans for less than $150,000 from the PPP program designed to help businesses stay afloat during the pandemic.
The documents show that the EIN number, also known as the Federal Employer Identification Number, that Bartley used on the application was not the one used by the Blue Hills Fire District — ending in 2906 — but a different one used by the Blue Hills Volunteer Fire Department.
The department is a separate legal entity that has no paid employees. Paid firefighters work for the district, while volunteers are affiliated with the department.
When asked about using the volunteer fire department number — 4559 — Bartley said the “bank account for the Blue Hills Fire District’s operating account, from which employees wages and other expenses are paid, is in the name of the Blue Hills Volunteer Fire Department and has the EIN ending (4559) for the Volunteer Fire Department associated with it.”
However, W2 tax forms of two former Blue Hills Fire District employees and other IRS documents associated with the district reviewed by the Courant use an EIN number ending in 2906.
When asked to explain, Bartley said, “I don’t have an answer for [that], but what I know is there has been a history regarding both names and EINs that is way before my time.”
Marzouca Jaunai, who is also the treasurer for the volunteer fire department, said that it was her understanding that on-line PPP application was pre-populated the EIN number and that she was only aware of the one ending in 4599.
“That’s the EIN that is associated with the department’s operating account”, she said. “Nothing fraudulent done.”
A Wells Fargo spokesman said that the applications were not pre-populated with EIN numbers.
“We don’t prefill EINs; all customers entered that information manually,” said Kevin Friedlander, who added that if a customer used the funds appropriately and submitted a correct forgiveness application with accurate supporting documentation when they are invited into the process, Wells Fargo would not reject it.
Steven Goode can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.