By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Michael Kerski moved from Hartford, Connecticut, to Arizona in November 1996 to revitalize downtown Chandler--and a career rocked by scandal.
Last August, the Connecticut attorney general sued Kerski, claiming that as executive director of the Greater Hartford Architectural Conservancy, Kerski used the conservancy's funds to "personally enrich" himself.
The suit says Kerski used "conservancy money to pay for purchases made on his personal credit card, including but not limited to jewelry and expensive clothing, charges at restaurants and hotels, rental cars, and other items in connection with pleasure trips to Phoenix, Miami Beach and Disney World."
Kerski became "unjustly enriched" with conservancy funds and dipped into the nonprofit's treasury to "purchase airline tickets in connection with personal trips," the legal documents say, and also to pay "personal expenses of friends or other persons not eligible or qualified to benefit from conservancy funds."
Kerski filed false and misleading financial statements that failed to accurately report such expenditures, the lawsuit states.
The attorney general wants Kerski to pay the money back. It is unclear how much Kerski allegedly owes, but one spending spree cost $31,000. Connecticut's AG also wants a judge to ban Kerski from ever again directing a nonprofit in that state.
In Connecticut, the attorney general handles only civil matters. But the AG referred the case to the chief state attorney's office, which prosecutes criminal cases. That office is conducting an investigation of Kerski, spokesman Timothy Sugrue tells New Times.
Several months after Kerski arrived in Arizona, the conservancy filed for bankruptcy. Many of the blighted, historic buildings the conservancy had purchased under Kerski's direction remain unrestored eyesores in the Hartford cityscape.
Vivian Zoe, a Hartford resident who is vice president of the newly formed Hartford Preservation Alliance and an official with the Antiquarian and Landmark Society, says in a telephone interview there are at least five abandoned historic buildings in her neighborhood alone that the conservancy once purchased with grandiose plans for restoration.
"Michael is not a bad person," says Zoe, who was Kerski's neighbor. "He just had big dreams and liked to be seen as a mover and shaker. He liked to be seen with the big boys."
Toni Gold, who served as executive director of the conservancy for 10 years, says she hired Kerski in 1981, when he was fresh out of college. Kerski replaced Gold after she resigned.
Kerski was a hard worker and effective project manager, says Gold, but when he became executive director, he "wanted to be a hero." The conservancy bought more old buildings than it could afford. When the conservancy began experiencing severe financial problems, she says, Kerski did not inform the board of directors.
Says Gold: "Michael left the place in a shambles."
"Basically, he skipped town before anyone knew."
In an interview with New Times, Kerski refers to his problems in Hartford as "old news," denies any wrongdoing and dismisses any similarities between his job in Hartford and his job in Chandler.
"I have a different job here and a different life here," he says. "I was there [Hartford] for 15 years, and I had one bad year where everything that could go wrong in my life went wrong. I had a divorce . . . I had that deal with the State of Connecticut and I filed for [personal] bankruptcy."
He says the conservancy collapsed after Hartford plunged into a recession, drying up donations. He blames a friend for the vacation and shopping binge that the AG says the conservancy paid for. (Kerski says he often used his credit card to pay the conservancy's expenses.) And he says the controversial debts were either discharged in his personal bankruptcy in Connecticut or paid off by his parents.
Kerski says he made a mistake, learned from it, will never do it again.
"People need to understand," Kerski says, that he was involved in "tons of different businesses" and he was dumping in "tons of [personal] money" into the conservancy "whenever they were short of cash.
"Things happen to people in their lives, and you need to work them out. I've hired a lawyer in Connecticut. . . . I'll get it resolved there. I concentrate on what I'm doing here. I have a new life. I'm a very happy person. I have a very stable job."
Joan Saba, a Chandler resident who chairs the Downtown Partnership, says of Kerski's legal problems, "Whatever his personal life is, that's his personal life.
"I don't think it has anything to do with our downtown redevelopment. . . . I don't believe it was a similar situation.
"I can tell you he's a hard worker, he must work 70 hours a week with no clerical staff, and he's one of the nicest people I've ever worked with."
Chandler officials are equally loyal to Kerski.
They learned of the lawsuit against Kerski from a newspaper reporter, because Kerski had been "too embarrassed" to tell his employers about the problem, says city manager Lloyd Harrell, who hired Kerski. He adds that Kerski, in his job interviews, had mentioned the conservancy was suffering financial difficulties.
Harrell was unaware of the criminal investigation until informed by New Times.
Both Harrell and Jay Tibshraeny, the mayor, say Kerski is innocent until proved guilty in his upcoming trial in Connecticut, that Kerski should be judged not on the Hartford allegations but on his superb performance in Chandler.
The city has such faith in Kerski, and such zeal to transform the downtown according to Wrightian design, that it appropriated $1.6 million for downtown redevelopment this year, money Harrell says is closely monitored by city accountants.
--Terry Greene Sterling