Tuesday, February 28, 2006

February 28, 2006 The 2003 county audit: what a difference an auditor makes

In previous posts, we have looked at the 2002 audit where the county spent $923,000 more than it took in and the 2001 audit that required two blog postings because it is a pretty outrageous financial "record" that provides large volumes of false or misleading financial data about county spending.

Somebody probably should have asked for a refund of the $28,000 that was paid for (wasted on?) the 2001 audit! (See 2001 audit posts of Jan. 4 and Jan. 21).

The 2003 audit that we discuss today is unique--primarily because it was the first audit in recent history performed by someone outside Hamblen County.

I am proud to have had the honor to be the driving force in leading the county commission to hire the state auditors instead of local, private auditors to perform the county audit in 2003, 2004, 2005, and beyond.

I wanted the state to perform the Hamblen County audit for three important reasons:

1. EXPERIENCE. State auditors are more experienced in performing county audits. They know what to look for, and that is a major reason that almost all counties use the state auditors.

2. INDEPENDENCE. I hoped that the actual audit personnel would be more independent since they were less likely to live in Hamblen County and have direct ties with Finance Personnel or local elected officials.

3. SAVINGS. The state charged about $13,000 for the same audit that the local auditors were charging $31,000 for, so I knew there would be a savings of $18,000 by having the state auditors come in.

The first audit by the state auditors proved that the county saved money ($18,000 in SAVINGS) plus the new auditors provided a better audit. The state auditors have tons of EXPERIENCE in performing county audits because they work on county audits throughout East Tennessee almost all year long instead of just performing one county audit each year. In addition, the state auditors, despite some local ties, are more INDEPENDENT than the local auditors were.

How much better was the state-performed audit? Well, the state auditors pointed out problems and violations of state law that had been overlooked, ignored, or missed year after year in previous audits. Most of the violations that the state auditors found were violations that had been occurring (unreported) for years.

Example: There was only one finding in the 2002 audit (the last one performed by the local, private auditors). There were 29 findings in the 2003 audit (the first one performed by state auditors). And, sad to say, some of those 29 separate findings had 4-5 sub-findings.

Almost half (13) of the 29 findings were connected to two offices--the Sheriff's Office (Otto Purkey) and the Office of the County Mayor (David Purkey, Otto's brother). Click here on 2003 audit findings to see the complete list from the audit document.

The Sheriff's Office (Otto Purkey) had 6 findings.
A cash shortage of $14,326.40. Deficiencies and poor record-keeping. Jail receipts unaccounted for. Serious accounting weaknesses for prisoner's funds and personal effects, and weaknesses in controls over cash collections.

The County Mayor's Office (David Purkey) had 7 findings with many sub-findings.
Purchasing deficiencies were noted because there was essentially no purchasing system with blank purchase orders just handed out to departments with no control.
The county's general ledger was not properly maintained or reconciled monthly. Receivables and payables were not accurately reflected.
The state chart of accounts (that is mentioned in the county's financial management contract) was not used as required by law.
There were deficiencies in controls over travel and credit card use.
There were deficiencies in budgeting procedures--where the Mayor did not present a budget to county commission for the drug control fund or the Special Revenue Fund (despite the fact that state law requires this) and where the Mayor expended money from those funds without appropriation or approval of county commission.
In other instances, transfers of appropriations/money were made without the required approval of county commission. This, too, was a violation of state law.
Expenditures and encumbrances (amounts owed at the end of the fiscal year) exceeded the amounts that had been approved by county commission in amounts ranging from $737 to $296,264 in several categories of the General Fund. This, too, was a violation of state law.
There was a fund deficit in the garbage fund of $205,578.
The Capital Improvement (Capital Projects Fund) had a cash overdraft of $34,737.

The Director of Schools had 2 findings:

The Trustee had 3 findings.

The County Court Clerk had 3 findings.

Circuit and General Sessions Court Clerk had 2 findings.

Clerk & Master had 3 findings.

Register's of Deed Office had 1 finding.

Other Findings: 2

More to come on the 2003 audit as the county starts to round the corner.

The county got a "wake-up call" to accountability with the 2003 audit. Most office holders quickly and gladly adjusted to the higher standards and are to be saluted for their work and efforts.

A few office holders who heard the accountability trumpet blaring reacted with silence or fits of uncontrolled rage punctuated by repeated, red-faced public outbursts.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

February 26, 2006 State Conflicts of Interest: Money and Influence

Just read an interesting article by Brad Schrade in the Nashville Tennessean on conflicts of interest at the state level (Tennessee Highway Patrol and Deputy Governor Dave Cooley) and how money buys influence.

If you have read any of my past blogs, you know that conflicts of interest in our local government are a specific concern of mine. What happened/happens on the state level points out how conflicts of interest compromise the public trust and undermine the integrity of state and local departments.

The Tennessean reports that Deputy Gov. Dave Cooley has apparently tried to stay involved in politics and promotions at the Tennessee Highway Patrol even after Gov. Phil Bredesen told him to keep out.

Bredesen told Cooley to keep out of THP matters over a year ago following a scandal in which a THP lieutenant fixed a Cooley speeding ticket. Just recently, Bredesen condemned cronyism at THP and forced out its top three officials.

Cooley, however, apparently doesn't understand what "keep out" means. Cooley contacted Gerald Nicely, interim commissioner at the THP's parent agency, the Safety Department, commented about "the mess" the Safety Dept. was in, and then asked for Nicely's personal home e-mail address.

It appears that Cooley wanted to be able to contact Nicely at home (instead of using state e-mail) with the idea that such communications would not be subject to public-record laws.

The Tennessean reports that Cooley was "kept informed" about THP issues by his wife, Melanie Cooley, who was executive assistant to then-Safety Commissioner Fred Phillips. Melanie Cooley was appointed to the Safety Dept. by Bredesen shortly after his election.

While at the Safety Dept, it appears that Melanie Cooley had influence at the Highway Patrol. In e-mails to her husband, she mentions THP promotion rosters and requests for favors. Her e-mails also discuss hiring and promotion requests from citizens-- well-heeled citizens who donated large amounts to the Governor's 2002 campaign.

(According to the article, Nicely did provide his home e-mail address to Cooley, but Nicely has said that the deputy governor has not contacted him at his home e-mail account.)

Apparently, Cooley was the go-to man if you needed a THP favor. The article states that when a THP captain wanted to get his fiancee's niece hired as a trooper, the captain wrote a letter to Cooley.

The captain, Larry W. Rucker, asked for Cooley's help in a letter dated Sept. 23, 2003, telling him any "consideration you can give to her (his fiancee's niece) would be greatly appreciated." Rucker and his fianceƩ apparently contributed$6,300 to the Bredesen campaign, and Rucker himself has since been promoted twice by the Bredesen administration.

The Tennessean reports that the niece was hired in January 2004 and then fired from the patrol last fall after a random drug test came back positive for amphetamines. The niece is apparently appealing the firing, saying she was under treatment for narcolepsy at the time. Rucker, now the lieutenant colonel, is acting commander of the Highway Patrol.

Melanie Cooley no longer works at the Safety Dept. She has been transferred to another state agency.

Conflicts of interest and money and influence!

Just like the song lyrics, they go together like "a horse and carriage" or, in the case of Dave and Melanie Cooley, they go together like "love and marriage."

February 26, 2006 Proposals for Openness and Improvements in Hamblen County Government

A Strategic Planning Committee was named by the Chairman of the Commission several months ago. It recently held its very first meeting.

Committee Chairman Edwin Osborne asked each commissioner to submit five suggestions or priority areas for government improvement.

I submitted my ideas on Thursday, February 23.

I will just briefly sketch them here. In future posts, I will provide more detail.

1. Ethics--Formulate a thorough ethics policy and guidelines for Hamblen County government. Lots more to come on this. This will be a complicated, but very important process.

2. Policy Initiatives

A. Open up the solicitation process for professional services of engineers and architects in connection with work for the county by issuing requests for proposals when engineering and architectural services are needed and when the amount involved is significant. Seek input from a number of individuals/firms, examine their qualifications, charges, and experience, and then select the best-qualified individual/firm based upon a complete examination of all criteria. There are many good individuals and firms that should be asked and allowed to offer a proposal on county work.

B. Meetings policy: Provide that all meetings of county government are listed on the HC website and publicized in the newspaper at least 48 hours before they occur-- along with a list of major items to be considered. Eliminate the scheduling of meetings prior to 4:00 or 5:00 pm in order to provide the greatest opportunity for citizens to attend. We serve the citizens and their convenience should be uppermost in scheduling meetings.

C. Provide a county number that can be dialed (like 211 East Tennessee Information and Referral in Knox County) to serve as a one-stop referral service for people needing special assistance from government, health and community services, emergency food, substance abuse counseling, low-cost recreation for families or volunteer opportunities.

3. Financial planning:

A. Calculate the effect that OPEB's ("other post-employment benefits") will have on the upcoming 06-07 FY budget and beyond. Commissioners Osborne and Bruce have indicated that this is a huge cost area in the school system. Examples of OPEB's are where the school system makes a lump sum payment to teachers at the time of retirement and pays a part of their health insurance premium after retirement until they reach Medicare age of 65. Donald Gregg from the school system alone or along with Commissioners Bruce and Osborne could present a report before June 1, 2006, with current and projected costs of OPEB's.

B. Pay down the county's debt. Low interest rates are good but eliminating as much of the county debt as possible is even better and frees up money that would be paid out as interest for useful purposes such as equipment upgrades, employee raises, and the like. Don't borrow and spend or tax and spend and pass on the debt to our children and grandchildren unless it's absolutely necessary.

C. Consider creative solutions to education in Hamblen County.

Discipline: To really address school issues, one needs to address the problems created by children who don't want to be at school, are constantly disruptive, don't care if they or anyone else get an education, and are only there because they cannot drop out yet.

If teachers were allowed more time to teach, students would have a better chance of receiving quality education across the board regardless of funding levels.

The problems of the disruptive students should be addressed through a community-wide effort to provide student mentors, information about sources of help, and adult volunteers.

Curriculum: Requiring more math credits--particularly an additional course or at least a refresher course in the senior year before going to college, trade school, or work.

Block scheduling: Is it effective? Or does it just allow students to earn lots of credits outside of the core areas of math, science, English, and social studies? One weakness (trying to cram certain math courses into a semester) has been addressed by making certain math courses year-round. Should we stay with block scheduling? Should we modify block scheduling even further?

Year-round school: This has been kicked around forever. A study was done once. Nine-week sessions with 2-3 weeks off between and 8-10 weeks off in the summer. Is it effective? Is it desirable? Is it still being considered? What do parents think?

Early intervention: When a child K-3 is experiencing learning problems and is not up to grade level, there needs to be immediate detection and then help (not a label). Sending students on to the next grade when they can't read or perform math at their current grade level is a recipe for continuing academic failure and the growth of discipline problems. The problems don't go away. They just increase. Again, community involvement with help from teacher-ed students at WSCC or Carson-Newman, community volunteers (young and old), and student mentors could be a source of critical help for these students.

4. Openness and accountability: Provide complete detail reports of revenues and expenditures from all funds (not just gen, hwy, and garbage) as a standard practice at least quarterly. Placement and updating of this and certain other county financial data on the Hamblen County (HC) website would allow easy access for commissioners and the public. Place the most recent HC audits on the HC website (or provide a link on the HC website that takes one to the audits for certain years as they appear on the Comptroller's website).

5. Completion and indexing of a Hamblen County Code. I spoke to County Attorney Rusty Cantwell about this many months ago and mentioned this again to Commissioner Phillips in January. Numbering, grouping, and indexing resolutions is the key to an efficient record. Having to look back through an index of county commission minutes over a period of 10 years or more to find out whether there is a county resolution about billboards, or any other topic, is inefficient and should never happen. When we have an organized "code" such as other counties have and such as the state has (Tennessee Code Annotated), then it should be made accessible online as well as in hard copy form.

I have not tried to number these in order of importance. They are all important.

There are plenty of other ideas that should be considered such as a (1) local tipline for reporting fraud, waste, or abuse, and (2) a reward and incentive system for employees who come up with ways to save the county money or to improve services.

One other suggestion--let's invite the public to submit suggestions, too.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

February 16, 2006 A New Political and Personal Direction

I am not running for re-election to county commission in 2006. I went back and forth on whether or not to run for the past several weeks. The decision was finally made last night.

Although many people encouraged another run and family and supporters were ready to hit the campaign trail, I made the decision not to run so that I can devote more time to my family and start using my law license to help people. I will continue to work on local accountability issues. However, I will simply do so in ways other than serving on county commission.

I will continue to use this blog as one way of getting the continuing message of accountability out.

In looking back and in looking forward to the remaining seven months of my term, I can say that I did what I said I would do and that I will continue to do so. I have never wavered, and I achieved my campaign goals. Among the many achievements were the following:

1. The state, instead of a local private auditor, now performs the yearly county audit. The savings to the county have been huge--$18,000/year. During the past 3 years, that has meant a total saving to the county of over $54,000 plus a better overall audit.

2. County Commission meetings are now taped and televised on Charter and Adelphia cable television. This was a big push on my part because of my belief in open government and knowing that sunshine acts as a "purifier" in the conduct of the public's business. Charter Cable Company donated video equipment, and Commissioner Phillips and I secured and donated audio equipment and microphones. My husband Ron provided materials free of charge and donated his own time to build a platform where the camera operator could sit. If you can't get to the commission meeting, you can watch it at home.

3. I made a proposal in November 2002 to have the county provide the financing for HVAC units (heating, venting, and air conditioning units for Lincoln and Meadowview Schools) so the schools could accept the low equipment bid and save $60,000. Although the schools chose not to let the county provide financing on the HVAC units at that time and thus gave up a possible savings of $60,000, the school system later accepted the idea of county financing on purchases such as buses and has saved money.

4. One of the most dramatic savings--to the tune of $1.1 million dollars for the county taxpayers-- occurred when I did not just blindly accept the state calculation of the Hamblen County certified (post-appraisal) tax rate in July 2005. All commissioners were sent packets from the County Mayor with the new state-certified tax rate along with local budgets that had been prepared by the Mayor's Finance Department using the proposed state tax rate.

I looked at the rate and the related budgets that had been prepared by the County Mayor and knew that something was wrong with both. The rate that the state had sent to Hamblen County, the rate that the Mayor's Finance Department had used to prepare a revised county budget in July 2005, was too high.

I called the Assessor and told him what I had found--that the state certified tax rate was incorrect and that the new tax rate should be about 11 cents less. After a phone call, the state provided a corrected, lower tax rate, and the resulting savings benefited the taxpayers of Hamblen County to the tune of about $1.1 million dollars.

Trust but verify has been my motto in connection with pushing for accountability for tax dollars. The importance of checking everything was proven big-time with my review of those state tax calculations. For me, doing that check was nothing special. I try to check as much county financial information as I possibly can because public service means working to save the taxpayers every dollar and being accountable in seeing that every dollar that is spent, is spent wisely.

I have served my constituents and tried to address their concerns--from having a tree removed that obstructed the view at a dangerous intersection, to saving the taxpayers $18,000/year on the county audit, to saving Hamblen County taxpayers over $1.1 million dollars by checking the state's certified tax rate.

I would like to express my sincere thanks to the voters of the 14th district who supported and elected me to the Hamblen County Commission in 2002. Serving the people of my district during the past four years has been a great honor, and I can never adequately express my appreciation for the trust that was placed in me.

At this time, however, I need to devote more time to helping my family, and I need to use my law degree to help others. I will stay involved, and I will continue to be a guardian for taxpayers. I will continue to attend meetings, and I will speak out about controlling taxes and controlling spending just as I did before I was elected.

I do not rule out the possibility of a future run for office or some other sort of involvement in government.

The taxpayers and everyday citizens of Hamblen County deserve an open and accountable government. That requires constant vigilance and a careful watch over county spending.

On a very personal note, I want to thank my family for their love and support. My husband Ron, my son Will, and my daughters Jenny and Katie have supported me through three years of law school, helped in my campaign for office in 2002, and have listened and provided input as I have come up with proposals to save the county money and to balance county budgets.

I have been blessed with very special parents, Bill and Helen Catron, who have been a source of strength and support in whatever I have attempted. My father passed away in May 2005, but his legacy of hard work, integrity, and honesty remain. I strive to live up to the example that he set. I also want to thank my sisters--Laura Catron and Lisa Catron Bible. I can not say enough about their encouragement and support and the many memories and experiences we have shared.

In future posts, I will explain the events that led up to entering law school and that resulted in my run for county commission in 2002.

In the meantime, I will continue to be the voice of fiscal conservatism and a watchdog for the citizens of Hamblen County.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

February 14, 2006 Investigative Audit: Tn School Boards Assn.

Audits come in many sizes and varieties.

The type of audit that I have been discussing in recent posts is a simple "financial" audit involving a limited examination of a very small number or sampling of financial transactions (such as occurs
with the required audits of all Tennessee counties).

Another type of audit is an "investigative audit" and one such audit just made big news in Tennessee. As a result of a tipster's report to the state, an investigative audit of the Tennessee School Boards Association (TSBA) was performed.

An investigative audit is special. It is far more extensive than a financial audit. The investigative auditor actually searches out information and looks for fraud and illegalities (unlike the routine random examination of a small sampling of transactions that occurs in a financial audit).

In a very simplistic way, the two audits can be compared as follows: A financial audit just looks at a few checks to see if everything adds up. An investigative audit goes deeper and attempts to find out if the checks and financial data are correct and whether the checks were ever legally authorized.

Obviously, there's a lot of difference in having an auditor come in, look at a few checks, and say everything "adds up" (financial audit) and having an auditor come in, look at several checks in depth, and find that there are checks that shouldn't have been written at all and that illegal payments were made (investigative audit).

So what did the in-depth investigative audit of the TSBA (Tennessee School Boards Assn.) find? Well, for starters, the audit reported that John Evans, program manager of the TSBA Risk Management Insurance Trust, had received over $500,000 in unauthorized commissions and interest.

It also stated that Dan Tollett, former executive director of TSBA, had received more than $400,000 in improper payments from the taxpayer-funded organization. Tollett resigned as a director of the Risk
Management Trust on Jan. 31.

Evans was recently questioned about his actions by the House-Senate Education Committee of the Tennessee Legislature.

Auditors found that payment of $492,694 in special commissions to Evans had not been authorized. Although auditors reported that board members could not recall any authorization and records reflect no such approval, Evans said that all fees and commissions were authorized and that three board members now recall the authorization. The records, he said, are "being reconstructed."

Evans admitted that he was involved, until 1999, in the establishment and operation of an insurance trust fund that subsequently went bankrupt and cost the governments involved more than $4 million. Evans also admitted that he had at least 52 insurance licensing violations levied against him in Kentucky.

Tollett, who declined to appear before the Committee, "retired" from TSBA in 1994 and drew state retirement benefits totalling $276,856 from 1994-2000.

During his "retirement," however, he was still employed by TSBA through a separate TSBA entity that he had created just prior to "retiring."

The audit says that Tollett misled TCRS (Tennessee consolidated Retirement System). Instead of making Tollett repay the "retirement" benefits, Tennessee School Boards (through TSBA) refunded the benefits owed back to the state retirement system.

TSBA members face a huge credibility challenge. Corporate scandals in recent years reveal numerous cases of board members who didn't know squat about the organization's financial arrangements and didn't try to find out. Blind ignorance is no longer a good defense.

The individual members of the TSBA — and in particular TSBA board members — are responsible for the efficient operation of schools in 136 districts across Tennessee.

Tax money used to fund TSBA appears to have been abused as TSBA leaders drew retirement benefits while continuing to draw a TSBA salary through a "sham" organization.

Taxpayers across the state can only hope that local School Boards are more careful with the tax money used to run their local schools than these same local School Boards have been in monitoring the tax money they provided to fund their Tennessee School Boards Association (TSBA).

Thursday, February 09, 2006

February 11, 2006 Ethics Legislation at the State

A brief post on the state ethics legislation that passed this past Monday.

It is unfortunate that it takes a political crisis, such as the Tennessee Waltz indictments, to lead to legislation and efforts to restrain lawmakers from using their offices for personal gain.

That, however, appears to be the nature of politics at the present time. Get as much as you can for you and for your family before someone blows the whistle.

Having looked at summaries of the new ethics legislation, my feeling is that the new legislation is an improvement. And, let's face it, just about anything would have been an improvement. However, the laws regulating lobbying and conflicts of interest are still not strong enough.

My personal feeling is that special interest groups wield too much influence in Nashville. Too much influence is exerted by dollars, political contributions, and wining and dining instead of through open and public discussion and consideration in committee and legislative meetings.

The more that is disclosed about legislators, lobbyists, committee and legislative votes, the more open and responsive all legislators will be--both to groups and to individual constituents.

One of my primary concerns in government at all levels (local, state, national) is conflicts of interest. When someone takes office and then puts 3 or 4 or more family members on the government payroll, that official is starting down a slippery slope. Eventually, the situation gives the appearance of using one's office and the public trust for the financial benefit of one's family.

Of course, there is also a problem of conflicts of interest where family members serve in numerous elected or appointed positions.

This is a problem at the local level, and I have discussed conflicts on the county commission previously such as when School Board member Carolyn Spoone Holt comes to County Commission and requests that her brother Commissioner Joe Spoone provide funds for an International School for non-English speaking students.

Or when Paula Bruce Combs, an asst. principal and school system employee, sits in the audience at a County Commission meeting or watches the tape at home as her brother Commissioner Ricky Bruce votes on funding issues that will affect the amount of pay and benefits that Paula receives.

Or when Charlene Spoone, who works as a computer technician for the school system, sits at home with her county commission husband Joe Spoone, and school funding comes up.

Or when Witt principal Stan Harville sits in the audience at a commission meeting as his father Commissioner Herbert Harville votes on school funding that will affect both Stan's and his wife's pay and benefits.

Before anyone gets too upset at the mention of these names, let's remember that these are simply facts and the most well-known relationships. Having pointed out the facts and the relationships, this is not to say that Carolyn Spoone Holt shouldn't serve on the school board or that Joe Spoone shouldn't serve on county commission or that Charlene Spoone shouldn't be a school board employee.

Perhaps, however, Joe should abstain from the vote when school funding issues are presented.

Conflicts are found at the state level as well. There has been a lot of reporting recently about the Tennessee Highway Patrol. One report was about the "fixing" of a speeding ticket that had been given to Deputy Governor Dave Cooley. As the story began to unfold, it was reported that Melanie Cooley (Dave Cooley's wife) had recently served as executive assistant to the safety commissioner who is over the THP, but she was transferred to another government job after her husband's ticket scandal was reported.

Other reports have questioned whether conflicts of interest exist where Speaker of the House Jimmy Naifeh's wife works as a highly paid lobbyist trying to sway votes in the Tennessee legislature. She represents a lot of different companies and groups. Is there a legal conflict of interest in lobbying her own husband and trying to sway votes in the Legislature? Perhaps not. Is there a moral and ethical conflict of interest? In my opinion, there is.

An elected official occupies a position of public trust. Many officials find it extremely difficult to resist the temptation to use their office for financial gain for themselves and their family. And likewise family members of elected officials find it difficult to resist using the political connections of their relative to seek financial gain for themselves and their family.

We've all heard the statement that you can't legislate ethics and morality. However, you can enact laws that prohibit conflicts of interest and you can provide punishment for those who abuse the public trust and who use their offices for financial gain.

There are already a number of laws on the books in this regard. Additional prohibitions on conflicts of interest and abuse of offices of public trust would strengthen the standards that we set for elected and appointed officials.

Instead of trying to stay just within the bounds of the law, officials should strive to meet the highest ethical standards and should avoid even the appearance of ethical or moral impropriety.

At times, that might necessitate that one recuse himself or herself from voting where there is a potential conflict or the appearance of impropriety.