Catz pleads guilty to felony

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A member of the Hampton Bays School Board pleaded guilty to felony theft charges last month, more than a year after he was accused of stealing $9,000 in loose coins from his former employer, Verizon Communications.

According to public records, Chris Catz—who has been a member of the School Board since May 2003 and is currently serving his second three-year term—pleaded guilty to fourth-degree grand larceny on March 13 for stealing the money. His plea was entered before New York State Justice Martin Efman in Central Islip, and he was released on his own recognizance, according to authorities.

When contacted on Monday morning, Mr. Catz, who is married and has two children, referred all questions to his attorney, Patrick M. O’Connell of Tinari, O’Connell, Osborne and Kaufman, LLP, a Central Islip-based criminal law and personal injury firm. As of Wednesday, calls to Mr. O’Connell were not returned.

School administrators are aware that Mr. Catz has pleaded guilty to a felony but no action has yet been taken regarding his resignation or removal from the board, according to a press release issued on Tuesday by the Hampton Bays School District.

“The board has been told by its legal counsel that at present this issue remains a yet-to-be finalized matter between Mr. Catz and law enforcement authorities,” the statement reads. “Because this may ultimately affect Mr. Catz’s standing as a Board of Education member, we have been advised to closely monitor the legal process and consult again with counsel once the matter has been fully adjudicated.”

According to a spokeswoman for Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, Mr. Catz was arrested January 10, 2007, and accused of removing the change from coin vaults of pay phones over a three-month period beginning in September 2006 and ending in November 2006. When he was arrested last year, Mr. Catz was charged with one count of third-degree grand larceny and one count of fourth-degree grand larceny, both felonies. Last month, the third-degree grand larceny charge was dropped in exchange for his pleading guilty to the lesser charge.

Mr. Catz initially entered a plea of not guilty during his arraignment at 1st District Court in Central Islip on September 21, 2007. At that time, Mr. Catz was released on his own recognizance and he has continued with his School Board duties since.

Mr. Catz, 41, is due to appear before Justice Efman again on Thursday, May 8. At that time he is scheduled to hear the judge’s ruling on his plea and sentencing will be decided. Mr. Catz could face between 16 months and 4 years in prison once he is sentenced, according to the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office.

According to the New York State Public Officers Law, a felony conviction makes an individual ineligible to serve on a school board. Currently, school district officials are investigating whether the law will apply to Mr. Catz, whose term expires in May 2009.

If he does resign, or is removed from his post, board members have several options to consider. They can elect to leave Mr. Catz’s seat vacant, appoint someone to the board, or hold a special election to fill the vacancy.

A former first-level manager in Verizon’s Yaphank offices, Mr. Catz was fired by the company on December 12, 2006. He had been employed by the company for 14 years. The reasons for his termination involved time violations and mishandling of company assets, according to John Bonomo, a Verizon spokesman. On Tuesday, Mr. Bonomo said he was not able to say whether or not those accusations were related to the $9,000 theft.

Additionally, investigators with the Suffolk County DA’s office said they have a surveillance video provided by Verizon that shows Mr. Catz removing money from the coin vaults of pay phones.

During their investigation, detectives learned that Mr. Catz cashed his change in $99 increments at different Coinstar self-service coin processing machines in the western part of the island, including a Waldbaum’s store location in Patchogue and at the Walt Whitman Mall in Melville. According to a Coinstar spokeswoman, only deposits of $100 or more are documented by the coin processing machines.

Though School Board members approve expenditures for the district—this year, board members approved nearly $38 million for the 2007-2008 budget—they do not have access to ready cash or district funds. Mr. Catz has not been charged with stealing any money from the district.

Hampton Bays recently underwent an external audit for the 2006-2007 school year. The results of the study, conducted by the Port-Jefferson based accounting firm Coughlin, Foundotos, Cullen and Danowski LLP, found that the district “complied in all material respects” to state and federal guidelines.

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