KINGSTON — Dean and Debra Palen's iron grip over the Ulster County Health Department created years of distrust, inappropriate cash management practices and extensive inefficiencies that put the public's health and safety at risk, according to an investigation released Friday by the Ulster County Comptroller's Office.
The 46-page report is the culmination of a five-month-long investigation by Comptroller Elliott Auerbach into the administration of former Health Director Dean Palen and his wife Debra Palen, who worked as his administrative assistant. The investigation focuses on the department's Environmental Sanitation Division, which, among other duties, is tasked with inspecting and issuing permits to restaurants, public water supplies and other businesses and utilities.
While the Palens' mismanagement did not lead to any major health crises, the report paints their 15-year tenure as a time of political gamesmanship, poor financial management and nepotism.
According to the comptroller's report, these are some of the signs of mismanagement that festered in the Ulster County Health Department from 1994 until June of this year, when the Palens' were ousted:
- Dean Palen often used permits for restaurants and other projects as a way to gain political friends. Staff report overhearing Palen say that his P.E. (Palen was a professional engineer) actually stood for “political engineer.” Any one of the county's 33 legislators could call Palen about a project and it would be put at the “top of the list.” When called to task for this practice, Dean Palen would say it was a “win-win”—Dean now had a friend in the legislator, and the legislator had a friend in whomever benefitted from the permit.
- Debra Palen had far too much control over the department. She alone processed the payroll, collected inspection fees, prepared enforcement documents against noncompliant businesses and “wielded a degree of authority and control substantially inconsistent with her position and job description.” Debra Palen's work was never audited or checked by an outside party.
- Despite whistleblowing by employees and the press, those who oversaw Dean Palen in his role as director did nothing to monitor his performance. According to the report, that's largely because Palen manipulated the oversight bodies to avoid oversight or responsibility. Critical state audits were addressed to him and nobody else. When one oversight board would question his performance, he would tell that board it was the job of another board.
“Not only was he a master manipulator, but it was a shell game over the last decade,” Auerbach told the Times Herald-Record. “When you lifted up a shell there was nothing there, but it was somewhere else.”
To read the full audit report, click the link to the right of this story.
For more details from the audit, check back later with Recordonline.com and read Saturday's edition of the newspaper.