Erie County Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw and the administration of County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz sparred Tuesday over exactly when the administration was first made aware of the mishandling of copies of sensitive documents obtained from county residents applying for social services benefits.
The administration insists it was first alerted April 1 by a Department of Social Services employee, while the comptroller is adamant that the problem was known by the administration at least as far back as October.
The timeline of discovery is vital, Deputy County Executive Richard M. Tobe told lawmakers during a hearing on the issue Tuesday, because the county was required by law to notify the federal government within 60 days of discovering the breach.
“This is an important fact, because we are required by federal law to give notice within 60 days of our knowledge of a problem with the records. And if these notices occurred in the fall, then we missed it and we’re late, and the county is subject to millions of dollars in fines. The potential fines are very large,” Tobe said.
Social Services Commissioner Carol Dankert-Maurer and other administration officials accompanied Tobe to Tuesday’s hearing of the Legislature’s Government Affairs Committee.
The hearing was requested by the minority members of the Legislature after Mychajliw went public about his department’s investigation into the improper handling of confidential records by social services workers.
Neither side denies that social services workers improperly disposed of confidential documents, including copies of birth certificates, personal medical records, Social Security numbers, bank accounts, tax returns, inmate records, payroll information, court records and passports.
Mychajliw revealed last month that auditors from his department made the discovery in March while in the midsts of an audit. A week after first going public, Mychajliw revealed that on March 15, social services workers showed county auditors how sensitive documents were being stored in an unsecured area of the Rath County Office Building basement.
Mychajliw also charged that a county worker had come forward to say that she and other workers in the department had warned of the potential for lax record-keeping when their unit was dismantled in a budget-cutting maneuver.
The worker, Annette Cole, said the employees brought their concerns to the administration’s attention in October and in December during budget hearings before the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.
“Yes, the administration was aware of the program support unit, and this Legislature was made aware of the deep cuts to the program support unit,” Mychajliw told lawmakers Tuesday.
In a recent phone interview with The Buffalo News, Cole said that one of the duties that the members of her unit were tasked with was “handling of documents and their disposal.” However, Dankert-Maurer contradicted that claim at Tuesday’s hearing.
“They were providing a support function to the administration of the department. We made the difficult decision to eliminate those positions. Those individuals were able to (go) back to previously held, permanent positions,” Dankert-Maurer said.
Mychajliw said transcripts of the testimony provided by Cole and other workers from the dismantled unit reveal the consequences of eliminating the unit, even though copies of the transcripts provided to The News from the two hearings at which they testified on Oct. 30 and Dec. 13 do not reveal any specific discussion of record-keeping.