• Thu. Sep 21st, 2023

Fired Ohio finance director says he was ‘scapegoat’ in phishing scam

HILLIARD, Ohio (WCMH) – The City of Hilliard’s former longtime finance director said he was made a scapegoat when city officials fired him in February over a $219,000 phishing scam.

David Delande, a 29-year veteran of the role, received an audience’s standing ovation last Monday when he told Hilliard City Council he was wrongfully terminated on Feb. 13 and pegged as “the fall guy” after an accounting assistant in his office fell victim to an email phishing scam.

“I served with loyalty and without incident for nearly three decades, with no disciplinary action, reprimand or violations to date,” Delande said. “I received no severance, no health insurance. I had two years left to retire – an extra kick in the teeth after being kicked to the curb.”

Funds sent to scammer, city investigates

On Dec. 18, an accounting assistant in Delande’s office received a phony email from someone pretending to be Strawser Paving Company, a vendor that works with the city.

The assistant, who has since resigned, complied with the email’s request that he change the vendor’s bank account routing information, unknowingly sending $218,992.06 to a scammer without abiding by proper verification protocol, the city said in a February news release.

“Our investigations have shown the loss of funds was a result of human error in not following established protocol,” City Manager Michelle Crandall said in the release. “This scam did not involve any breach of the City’s network, systems or data.”

In his testimony to Council last week, Delande said he was not informed of the phishing attack until Dec. 28, about 10 days after the accounting assistant and a deputy director greenlighted the payments without his knowledge or approval.

The following day, Delande said TD Bank – where the funds were sent – told him the $219,000 payment was put on hold and would be returned to the city within 10 days. On Jan. 6, that information turned out to be false, Delande said. The money was not put on hold, as it had already been wired to two bank accounts and spent by the scammer.

“The funds paid by the city were misappropriated by criminals before I was ever informed that we were phished,” Delande said.

That same day, on Jan. 6, Delande said he got to work on recovery efforts. He filed a police report with the Hilliard Division of Police, and a detective was assigned to investigate, sending out various subpoenas to involved parties.

The city, however, said it wasn’t until Jan. 31 – 35 days after Delande was first informed of the felony phishing attack – that he notified City Manager Crandall about the situation. In early February, the city placed Delande on administrative leave pending an internal investigation, and on Feb. 13, he was fired.

In a March letter addressed to Council, Delande said he acknowledges and accepts responsibility for not informing Crandall sooner about the scam. But he said he was simply “doing (his) job” the same way he’s done it for decades.

“Not even once did it occur to me as I was following the processes I have followed for more than twenty-nine years that I have been doing something wrong,” Delande said. “I was spearheading an effort to collect funds which had been stolen. I was, in my mind, doing my job.”

The stolen funds have since been recovered by insurance, minus deductibles, Delande said.

Hilliard City Council divided on Delande’s termination

After Delande relayed his account of the phishing scam to Hilliard City Council last Monday, several of his longtime friends approached the podium to speak about his character and decades of service – both as a city official, a father-of-three and community volunteer.

Sylvia Stansell, a retired 30-year teacher of Hilliard City Schools and 33-year friend of Delande’s, testified about the former finance director’s accolades, including earning Hilliard’s first-ever triple-A bond rating.

“Someone who reports to you made a mistake, so we’re dumping you on the side of the road? If anything, you should be celebrating this man,” Stansell said. “It is my hope that you will take another look at this termination to give Dave the respect and gratitude he deserves.”

Following public testimony, Council President Omar Tarazi touted his support for conducting a council-led inquiry into Delande’s termination, pointing to what he called “a pattern here of conflicting information” regarding the events that transpired during the phishing scam.

“I think what happened to Dave Delande, from what I’m seeing, is an overreaction and unfair. If council feels otherwise, council feels otherwise,” Tarazi said. “We owe it to the voters, we owe it to the taxpayers, and we owe it to at least get a clean timeline and facts.”

But in a 4-3 vote, the seven-member council rejected the motion to further probe Delande’s termination. Councilmember Pete Marsh said City Council is not the forum for investigations.

“I like Dave. He’s been fantastic to me, but this isn’t our job; this isn’t our role,” Marsh said. “It’s about staying in your lane and doing your role. It doesn’t matter if I agree or disagree with (Crandall’s) decision. She made the decision, and that’s where we go.”

A second motion by Tarazi – which would express Council’s view that Delande’s termination was inappropriately handled – also failed, this time in a 5-2 vote. Tarazi and Councilmember Frank “Les” Carrier voted in favor, while Vice President Cynthia Vermillion and Councilmembers Marsh, Tina Cottone, Peggy Hale and Andy Teater voted against.

In an email, City of Hilliard spokesperson David Ball dismissed several comments made by Tarazi and his associated, failed motion as “not based in factual information.” 

The City conducted a thorough, internal investigation of the phishing scam, uncovering clear evidence that led to Delande’s termination, Ball said. As part of that termination, Delande was able to cash out more than $66,000 in leave accruals and pro-rated longevity pay.

A police investigation remains ongoing, Ball said.

It remains unclear whether Delande plans to further challenge his termination. In response to an NBC4 email, Delande said he would inquire with his attorney before commenting on the matter. He did not respond further.

Regardless of the outcome, he said at last Monday’s Council meeting that he will, despite his firing, hold his tenure with the City of Hilliard in high esteem.

“Stephanie and my three sons are not going to let this termination take away all the good memories, dignity and pride I have felt watching the city grow, change and achieve stability, offer top-notch amenities and parks, and offer solid schools for our residents,” he said.

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