By Dale Martin, City Manager
Henry Centrella was released (supervised) from prison earlier this week.
No one in Fernandina Beach or Nassau County, or with perhaps one sad exception, the state of Florida, has heard of Henry Centrella. In my former town of Winchester, Connecticut, however, everyone knew Henry. No last name was necessary.
Over 10 years ago, I was a principal participant in the story of Henry Centrella, leading to a 20-year prison sentence, mercifully reduced to 11 years.
Henry Centrella was born, raised, educated, and in turn, raised his own family in Winsted (please note that the names Winchester (the town)/Winsted (the city) are used interchangeably – it’s a Connecticut thing). Winsted is a 36-square-mile town in northwestern Connecticut. Like many towns in Connecticut, in its heyday, it was a thriving mill town. A notable business in the community was the Gilbert Clock Factory. The most famous resident, my neighbor, is Mr. Ralph Nader, consumer advocate and former U.S. presidential candidate.
Winsted was ravaged by two hurricanes, within a week of each other, in August, 1955: Hurricanes Connie and Diane. With the ground saturated, the two rivers that traversed the city, the Mad and the Still, flooded and destroyed most of the downtown. Nearly 70 years later, the town (with a population similar to that of Fernandina Beach) has still yet to fully recover from those storms. With that historic background, town finances were a challenge when I was appointed as the town manager in April 2011: industry was pretty much gone and the town’s tax base was heavily reliant upon the waterfront homes surrounding Highland Lake, a peaceful 445-acre lake.
Henry was the town’s finance director. With his local background, he had started working for the town in 1977 and was promoted through the town’s Finance Department ranks, reaching the pinnacle with his appointment as finance director in 1982. Most of the townspeople considered Henry as the financial guardian of Winsted: it was through his shrewd efforts that budgets were balanced and services maintained.
A 2013 Hartford Courant article offered this insight: “For decades, Winsted’s selectmen [note: equivalent to City Commissioners] have bickered, residents have voted down budget after budget [note: the traditional New England Town Meeting is something to experience, not only once, but five times], and town managers have come and gone almost as frequently as the seasons. But there was one person in Winsted government whom all sides trusted and looked to for guidance. Henry L. Centrella, Jr. always had a solution for the fiscal calamity of the day.”
Until the town auditors and town staff discovered Henry’s financial schemes in the summer of 2012. A quiet formal investigation was subsequently initiated by the town auditors, who, on Nov. 6, 2012, briefed the town attorney and me on their discovery of improper accounting activities. I was in limited contact with Henry on Nov. 7 and 8, and on Nov. 9, 2012, had my last direct contact with him as town police delivered to his home an official letter placing him on administrative leave. I subsequently terminated Henry in January 2013.
The next months of 2013 were consumed with the formal Connecticut State Police investigation: reviewing records, drafting statements, briefing selectmen, conducting press conferences, consulting with attorneys. The townspeople, so solid in their faith in Henry, vociferously argued at nearly every Board of Selectmen meeting that the town manager (me) was using Henry as a scapegoat for the financial woes of the city. They loved Henry so much that my local physician, referred to me by Henry, later indicated to me that dozens of character witnesses were prepared to speak on Henry’s behalf.
That attitude changed when the 27-page arrest warrant was served on Henry on Aug. 30, 2013. Critical to swaying the opinion of the residents was the revelation of Henry’s Florida mistress and the extensive financial support that he had provided for her. Henry was now reviled in the community. After his arrest, he never posted bail. Charged with five counts of larceny, he pleaded guilty, and on April 4, 2014, was sentenced to 11 years in prison. He has been imprisoned since his initial arrest. A plea for probation in 2018, for which I was invited to formally oppose by the Board of Selectmen, and an additional request for early release in 2022 were both rejected due to the nature and circumstances of the crime and the resulting harm to the town. His official scheduled release date was in April 2023, but due to earned credits while imprisoned, he was discharged earlier this week.
The final tally of Henry’s financial crimes was over $2 million embezzled from 2008 through 2012. Through another effort, Henry inflated his tax withholdings to garner nearly another $200,000. The total loss to the town was estimated at approximately $7.5 million. He spent the money lavishly on gambling (from 2008 to 2012, he reported over $500,000 in gambling losses) and his mistress.
The year 2013 was perhaps the most challenging of my professional career. It was through the support (not necessarily always unwavering) of the selectmen, especially Mayor Candy Perez, and the efforts of staff (who struggled with the stain of public distrust) that the town prevailed. Henry suffered great personal losses because of his actions: his wife divorced him, he lost his pension, a son died during his prison term, and he lost friends and his hometown.
Very few people of Winsted, including me, offer sympathy to Henry on his release.