Former Brent’s Cove town clerk charged with fraud
Couple concerned about how town handled finances
BRENT’S COVE, NL — Former Brent’s Cove town clerk Ellen Butler has been charged with fraud and other related charges.
She will appear in court Nov. 28.
Members of the RCMP serious crime unit in Corner Brook, working on a complaint from the Town of Brent’s Cove, said Monday they have charged Butler with fraud over $5,000, forgery, uttering a forged document and falsification of books and documents.
The investigation began in June 2016. Fraudulent activity reported by the town was allegedly discovered by a forensic audit and led to the additional charges.
The Telegram reported on troubles in Brent’s Cove last year and revealed details of a forensic audit obtained by Michael Sullivan, who was suing his hometown in a dispute over back taxes he says he does not owe.
That small claims case was set over to February 2018 but has now been settled out of court.
It was previously reported that Sullivan filed the small claims civil suit for a burnedout hot water tank against his tiny central Newfoundland hometown and got countersued for back taxes.
The case led him on a paper trail that included a forensic accounting report indicating the town filed a claim on a $50,000-insurance policy to recover alleged misappropriated funds.
No one had been charged with any wrongdoing at that time, but the RCMP began conducting an investigation into the town’s finances.
All of it fuelled Sullivan’s drive to not give in on his civil fight.
“I am not giving money to no one for nothing, especially when I paid (my taxes). It’s going to be a good fight, I will tell ya,” he said at the time.
The town’s mayor — Terry Sullivan, a cousin of Michael’s — would not discuss the forensic accounting report or town taxes. He said he couldn’t discuss the matter before the court case wraps up — the trial was set for June 12, 2017.
And the mayor said nobody besides Michael Sullivan had come to him with concerns about their tax bills.
He referred questions on the forensic report to the new town clerk, but the clerk was unable to be reached at the time of the report.
But Michael Sullivan had plenty to say — he said he’s been to Municipal Affairs, the citizen’s representative and even the human rights commission trying to get his concerns looked into.
Michael lives in St. John’s, but also has a home in Brent’s Cove once occupied by his mother, who was then in a nursing home. Family members use it from time to time, he said.
In May 2015, when he was opening the house for the summer, he said he discovered the town had shut off his water, but the town clerk of some 23 years — who is no longer employed with the town — told him it was a water pressure issue and it was rectified.
The Telegram had left messages for the former town clerk.
Michael’s habit was to disable the element in the hot water tank when the home was unoccupied, but a relative who had used the house didn’t think to take that precaution, designed to prevent the element from burning out.
When his spouse, Brenda Haas’ mother died that November, the couple discovered their water had been shut off sometime in October, apparently due to his alleged unpaid taxes.
The couple say they discovered later only a few people had their water cut off, mainly those with primary residences out of the town of about 90 homes.
“We had to call out and pretty well plead and beg to open the house — ‘We have to go out. My mother died. We got family coming. We need the house open,’” Haas said of the town office. “They acted like they were doing us a big favour by turning on the water.”
The water was turned on for a few days to accommodate the grieving family. But the couple said the water didn’t get hot, only lukewarm, which they say was due to the element being burned out.
This ultimately led to Michael Sullivan filing his small claim suit against the town for the ruined hot water tank and some loss of use of the home as a result.
Meanwhile, the town’s countersuit says he owes back taxes — dating back roughly a decade. At one point the contested bill was as much as $4,700, Michael Sullivan said.
But that had been whittled down now to $3,000 based on some receipts he could found.
The couple said on a trip out to Brent’s Cove, Michael would take money out of the bank and bring it into the town hall and pay his taxes. He didn’t keep track of his receipts and expected the town hall would keep copies.
The town had only recently started taking debit payments, Haas noted.
The couple said he’d been double billed by the town, as he paid his taxes in full each year and was given no indication he was in arrears until the town hired a new clerk.
Michael Sullivan isn’t the only resident who claimed their water was cut off without cause.
Sandra Sullivan, who moved to Fort McMurray after her middle-aged husband died in 2012, also keeps her home in Brent’s Cove for summer visits.
She said she received a back tax bill for $2,200 in 2015 when she went home for a visit.
“I said, ‘No way in hell I owe this money,’” she said at the time.
“I had to pay it. I had no other choice.”
She said she paid the bill to get her water turned back on but insists she and her husband, a fisherman, had always kept up with their bills. They paid the $750 yearly in cash installments, paying larger sums in good fishing months. Sandra said installment payments were routine for a lot of people in town, especially seniors.
“(The former clerk) used to say to me she can’t give me the balance — they got the books,
Michael Sullivan of St. John’s had a small claims court case against his hometown of Brent’s Cove and the town countersued for alleged back taxes. Sullivan amassed a paper trail, and he and spouse Brenda Haas were concerned about how finances were handled in the town.