Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Feeding the chief meter reader

One year Gary Stone deposited $217 in parking meter revenue at New Castle, PA.

Another year it was closer to $100.

In the meantime, Stone – then director of the city’s parking authority – was taking buckets worth of change across the Ohio state line to a grocery store change machine and converting the coins into cash. He’d later spend much of the loot at an out-of-state casino.

In the past week, Stone was charged with theft and fraud for pocketing at least $108,000 in parking meter change. The fraud charge is tied to his alleged use of a credit card he’d taken out in the city’s name before running up $6,000 in debt with it.

A county prosecutor said Stone turned in about $340 in parking meter revenue for 2006 and 2007. When Stone’s position was eliminated in January 2008, it didn’t take long for auditors to see that month’s parking revenue dwarfing Stone’s monthly margins.

“They knew right off something was wrong,” District Attorney John Bongivengo told me by phone this week.

Stone apparently used much of the money to feed a gambling habit, among other purchases Bongivengo said.

“He was taking it to the Mountaineer in West Virginia and gambling,” Bongivengo said, with a snicker. “That’s part of what he was doing with it.”

New Castle has been declared a distressed city, Bongivengo said. Though the city’s mayor and city council are still technically in power, accountants sent by the state of Pennsylvania have authority for spending and making many decisions such as employment.

Did Stone send the city into the red by himself?

Bongivengo said the extra cash would at least have helped the city during the last two years.

“It wouldn’t have hurt,” Bongivengo said. “That’s $108,000 that could have gone elsewhere, that’s for sure.”

“It’s still an open investigation. He’s the one we have dead to rights, but there’s a lot of questions about how did the administration not catch this,” Bongivengo said. “They did several audits trying to figure out how to increase income and decrease expenses; it’s either really bad negligence or intentional.”

City officials learned about the credit card situation after collectors called the city regarding the $6,000 in unpaid charges.

The New Castle area has been rocked by large thefts recently, Bongivengo said.

The week before Stone was charged, a defendant was charged with stealing more than $300,000 from a church group.

No word as to whether the $300,000 was split up between quarters, nickels or dimes used to feed the meter.