Haberek's per diem, use of town car under scrutiny in Stonington

Stonington - The Board of Finance plans to investigate First Selectman Ed Haberek's use of a car leased by the town and his receipt of almost $1,800 in per diem reimbursements while attending out-of-town trade shows.

Chairman Glenn Frishman said Tuesday that the board would seek answers from Haberek and would implement new rules to limit the practices after The Day informed him of Haberek's use of the 2011 Ford Fusion and the per diem payments, neither of which Frishman said were authorized by the board.

Frishman said it is has been the understanding of the finance board that Haberek would use the town-leased car to travel to out-of-town meetings but would use his own car for in-town business and would be reimbursed for gas.

Frishman said he also was unaware that Haberek was taking the car home at night, something he said the finance board never envisioned when the car was leased.

"This is a perk he has appropriated for himself that is going to come to a screeching halt," Frishman said. "He's going to have to park it."

Haberek said the car is not assigned to him, and other employees may use it. He also said first selectmen and mayors in surrounding municipalities have the use of town vehicles.

The car is being leased by the town for $348 a month. In addition, Haberek has a $6,000-a-year expense account and a $92,000 annual salary. He receives the $6,000 each year regardless of how much he incurs in expenses.

Haberek said the car is filled with gas from the town's highway garage. He also has been reimbursed for gas and mileage when he uses his own car for economic development reasons.

Former first selectmen William Brown and Donald Maranell said last week that they did not have the use of a town car and instead used their personal vehicles for town-related business, paying for gas from their expense accounts.

Frishman said that when the finance board approved the lease of two cars and a pickup truck in 2011, it was with the understanding that they would be parked at Town Hall and shared by town employees on an as-needed basis, such as for property inspections or to go to an out-of-town meeting. The employees would use their own cars to get to and from Town Hall.

Last week, the car was parked most nights in front of Haberek's Moss Street home and was there all weekend. On Friday night, the first selectmen used the car to go to the town-sponsored concert at nearby Donahue Park.

Although some town employees refer to the silver Fusion with plates 70-STN as "Ed's car," Haberek said it is not permanently assigned to him. When pressed about how much he uses it, he estimated about 20 percent of the time.

"It's not my vehicle. Anyone can use it," he said.

He said it was out of service for eight of nine months because of a recall. He said he only takes the car home when he has an early morning meeting the next day.

The town's policy regarding the use of town vehicles states that vehicles must be parked at Town Hall or at the Human Services Department when not in use, unless otherwise authorized. It is unclear who authorized Haberek to take the car home. The policy also prohibits the use of town vehicles for personal use.

During an interview Tuesday, Haberek said he uses his expense account to pay for work-related gasoline and repairs to his personal car. Later, he said that if he used only his own car, his expense account would be exhausted before the end of the fiscal year.

With gas at about $4 a gallon and Haberek saying his car gets 16 miles per gallon, Haberek's expense account would pay for 24,000 miles a year of driving.

Haberek, though, said he only gets $4,800 of the $6,000, because taxes are taken out when he receives it in his paycheck. But Frishman said the money would be tax-free if Haberek submitted receipts for reimbursement.

Police Chief J. Darren Stewart and Capt. Jerry Desmond have unmarked cars they take home so they can respond directly to after-hours emergencies. The cars are provided as part of their contracts. Haberek, an elected official, has no contract.

Town policy states that select vehicles may be assigned to employees to allow faster after-hours responses to emergency calls for better job efficiency and may be taken home. Haberek said he often responds to after-hours incidents when contacted by residents or town officials.

He also said he is much more active when it comes to attending after-hours meetings and events than were Maranell or Brown.

"No one in town can question me about being visible at town events," he said.

Over the past four years, Haberek also has attended trade shows in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and other cities promoting the town to businesses looking to expand or relocate.

Expense records show that during those trips, Haberek received per diem payments of between $50 and $71 a day for meals, for a total reimbursement of $1,779. The town separately pays for hotels, transportation and registration fees for any conventions or trade shows.

Frishman said it is unheard of for a first selectmen to be paid a per diem fee when he has an expense account. He said that if Haberek wants to be reimbursed for meals, he could submit receipts.

Haberek, though, said town policy calls for town employees to receive per diem payments per IRS guidelines when away on town business.

But Frishman said those employees receive a per diem stipend because they do not have a $6,000 expense account.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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