Editorial / Trust misplaced to the tune of 2 million clams
Published 6:09 pm, Thursday, September 20, 2012
We have to distrust each other. It is our only defense against betrayal.
Crime is rarely front-page news in Westport.
Yes, a respected jeweler was murdered in his Post Road office last December, and the wide-ranging manhunt for his killer captivated the town for six weeks.
But after the alleged killer was captured and then committed suicide in a Spanish jail, crime quickly slipped back to inside pages.
Westport enjoys a low crime rate relative to the rest of the state and the nation. By and large, we are a community where charity and trust are far more common than swindles and embezzlement.
So Westport residents had cause to feel doubly violated when crime on Wednesday burst back onto the front page of this paper, where two separate stories reported that large sums of money were missing from institutions entrusted to hold it.
In the two cases, a total of more than $2 million was drained from clients' accounts -- including three charitable foundations.
Soozi Folsom, a financial manager and owner of the Mansion Clam House restaurant, pleaded guilty to bank fraud Tuesday in the embezzlement of more than $1.3 million from the charitable foundations, the U.S. Attorney's office said.
Separately, more than 120 Westport condominium owners are out a total of $530,000 that disappeared from their complexes' accounts with a property-management company. An investigation into the missing money is ongoing.
Folsom on Saturday was at her Riverside Avenue clam house, which was serving food in the Slice of Saugatuck festival. Less than 72 hours before she would plead guilty to bank fraud, Folsom joyously told a reporter how much she liked the festival.
"I love it," she said. "I think it's grand. It just brings people out."
"Saugatuck was dead for many years," she added, "and it's just nice to have people back in the neighborhood to show them it's alive again."
Folsom apparently is a woman who can compartmentalize.
In her capacity as a financial manager with a Westport accounting firm, federal authorities say, she wrote at least 124 fraudulent checks to an entity she controls, forging signatures on the checks.
The three charitable foundations are controlled by the family of the late publishing magnate Richard Prentice Ettinger -- the Educational Foundation of America, Ettinger Foundation and Prentice Foundation.
According to their 2010 annual reports, the foundations had combined assets of more than $200 million and supported a variety of educational, arts, environmental and pro-choice organizations.
The $1.3 million embezzled over a three-year period exceeds total grants awarded in 2010 by the Ettinger Foundation and by the Prentice Foundation. As the investigation continues, it leaves the Westport accounting firm that employed Folsom -- Gunn Godfrey & Allison -- under a cloud.
Folsom is scheduled to be sentenced in December, likely to a place where clams will not be on the menu every night.
Meanwhile, condo owners in two Westport complexes want to know what happened to condo fees they paid to cover lawn care, landscaping, snow removal and other maintenance.
About $300,000 is gone from Strathmore Lane's account, and $230,000 has disappeared from Whitney Glen's.
In an affluent, family-oriented town that seems to have charity and good deeds in its DNA, we often make leaps of faith. We want to trust our neighbors, want to believe they are good people.
The playwright Tennessee Williams' most famous line, perhaps, is Blanche DuBois uttering, "I've always relied on the kindness of strangers."
This week's news reminds those of us more self-reliant than Blanche that people are not always what they seem and that not all strangers are kind.