In the final days leading up to the election, Zach Cohen, the Democratic candidate for town supervisor, is faced with defending his involvement with East Hampton’s finances once again as Republicans make campaign fodder of a Sept. 30 letter from the Office of the State Comptroller asking him to stop referring to himself as a financial analyst for the comptroller’s office.
In his campaign literature, Mr. Cohen is described as “a financial analyst for business and government, including all members of the current town board, the Villages of East Hampton and Sag Harbor, and the Office of the State Comptroller.”
“We are aware of no relationship between you and this office, either as an employee or independent contractor, for the provision of services as a financial analyst,” Steven J. Hancox, a deputy comptroller in Albany, states in the letter to Mr. Cohen. While Mr. Hancox acknowledged that Mr. Cohen submitted information to the office as a “private citizen,” he said that calling himself a “financial analyst” to the office was “an exaggeration and misleading.”
Mr. Cohen said he suspects the deputy comptroller is not aware of the level of involvement he had with Albert Eid, a principal examiner from the comptroller’s office with whom Mr. Cohen worked (through extensive meetings as well as e-mail exchanges) on untangling the financial snarls of the town’s budget.
Mr. Cohen served on the town’s budget and finance advisory committee and went on to conduct his own review of town finances on a volunteer basis. While he said that he can understand the deputy comptroller’s point of view to some degree, he insists that he never meant to indicate that he was anything other than a volunteer.
“Who would take that statement at face value?” he asked. “I couldn’t have contractual agreements with all those institutions. The assumption is when you say, ‘I’m a financial analyst,’ you’re a professional. But if you say, ‘I’m a golfer,’ people assume you’re an amateur.” He holds a master’s in business administration from the University of Chicago and did doctoral work in mathematics.
Mr. Cohen provided to The Star more than 145 pages of documented correspondence, not only with Albert Eid, but also with the outsourced auditors Nawrocki Smith, the town board members Theresa Quigley, Dominick Stanzione, and Julia Prince, and State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., among others, bearing out his assertions that his involvement had been sanctioned and appreciated.
On Jan. 15, 2010, Ms. Quigley wrote an e-mail not only to Mr. Cohen but also copying the town budget officer, Len Bernard, and Supervisor Bill Wilkinson. She thanked him for his “tenacious focus on helping solve our financial morass,” and said “I am confident that with you, Scott [Wilson], Len, and the town attorney’s input, we can move this forward.”
On July 29, 2010, Mr. Eid told Mr. Cohen that upon his retirement in September of that year he would let him “know who the person is so you can maintain contact with someone from our office.”
The Wilkinson administration provided plenty of e-mail correspondences as well. In an e-mail yesterday, Mr. Bernard said that Mr. Cohen “had no relationship with them [the State Comptroller’s Office] (including when Al Eid was leading the 2009 audit), except for Cohen sending them a bunch of paper unsolicited.”
Mr. Bernard provided copies of an e-mail chain from earlier this year in which David Tellier, a partner at Nawrocki Smith, questioned Mr. Cohen’s characterization of his involvment with the comptroller’s office.
And on June 1, 2010, Ira McCracken, chief examiner for the Office of the State Comptroller, responded to Mr. Cohen’s accusations that Nawrocki Smith had botched some of the figures in the audit of town finances rather severely.
“As you know when we certified the debt we worked with Nawrocki Smith and we had no issues with their work,” Mr. McCracken wrote. “I don’t think you should be concerned with Mr. Cohen’s criticism of Nawrocki Smith. Also, just as Al said, there is no truth that he worked with people from our office.”
Mr. Cohen maintains that he never intended to mislead anyone. Jeanne Frankl, the chairwoman of the East Hampton Town Democratic Commitee, responded to Mr. Hancox on Oct. 19 with a letter stating that Mr. Cohen’s “extensive services as a volunteer to help straighten out East Hampton’s finances in 2009 and 2010 were well known in the community.” In the letter, which Mr. Cohen provided to The Star, she said “we had not imagined the statement referred to would suggest that he was a paid employee or consultant to any of the various agencies, including the local comptroller’s office. . . .”
Mr. Cohen has since edited the language in his brochure to avoid any further misinterpretation.
“Not that many people have the skills to say ‘I’m a financial analyst,’ ” he said. “But I happen to have those skills. I knew I could do this for my community and I did.”