Friday, February 29, 2008

February 29, 2008 Knox P-card Audit Is Public

When reporters start investigating and when auditors come in and look for fraud, waste, and abuse in government at the local level, it's not a pretty sight. The News-Sentinel has the Knox County government story.

The initial draft of the special audit of Knox County purchasing card (P-card) use is available online.

Follow-up stories are already coming out as a Mayor's aide says receipts may have been turned in and then lost OR maybe newspaper reporters lost them!

If Knox County Commission had been acting as a check and balance on the Knox County Mayor's Office, a lot of the fraud and waste of taxpayer dollars would not have occurred.

If the citizens of Knox County had realized that regular annual audits are little more than a cursory review of the figures that are provided and that there is only an examination of a few sample charges, then they would have demanded real accountability long ago from both the Mayor's Office and the Commission.

Regular audits do NOT look for fraud, waste, and abuse.

Our State Comptroller, who directs all county audits, has stated this.

"Trust, but verify" is the key to true government accountability.

Newspapers--when they choose to investigate and report--are vital in ensuring government accountability.

Local officials and citizens---not a state auditor who just peeks at a few transactions--are important in seeing that fraud, waste, and abuse does not continue and escalate to the level seen in Knox County.

Knox County's cleansing started with a newspaper that began to report and investigate what was going on in government offices and that challenged a power structure that openly violated the open meetings law.

Knox County's cleansing has been pushed along by talk-radio that allows the public to listen and actively participate in discussions about government actions as well as other local concerns.

Knox County's cleansing has been spurred by several citizens--former accountant Lewis Cosby is among the most prominent--who were so incensed by the waste of THEIR tax dollars that they took action. Lewis Cosby went to the Mayor's office, reviewed and copied documents, and started a detailed examination of invoices, payments, slush funds, and the like.

As Mr. Cosby began to detail the outrageous lack of fiscal control in the Mayor's office, Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale called Mr. Cosby a showboat at a public meeting! Name-calling instead of addressing the issue--a typical response from a politician.

Mr. Cosby was not a showboat. Mr. Cosby was a citizen who was indignant about waste of taxpayer dollars--his own and those of others.

Now, it looks like Mr. Cosby was right all along about fraud, waste, and abuse in Knox County government.

The question is, 'what happens next?'

A lot of commenters at the end of the News-Sentinel article are asking for restitution, firings, criminal charges, and/or ouster suits for elected officials.

Tthe officials and employees will submit their responses to the audit, and only then will it be crunch time.

Who enforces the law against the lawmakers? Who watches and prosecutes government corruption?

February 29, 2008 Former State Sen. John Ford Must Report to Prison; Former State Sen. Kathryn Bowers Sentenced

Former State Sen. John Ford must report to federal prison within 60 days to begin serving a 5-1/2 year sentence in connection with his conviction for taking bribes in the Tennessee Waltz scandal that rocked Capitol Hill in Nashville in 2005.

Ford also still faces a June 2008 trial in Nashville for concealing large amounts of money received from TennCare contractors.

In another Tennessee Waltz case, former State Sen. Kathryn Bowers was sentenced a few weeks ago to 16 months in prison and 2 years of supervised probation for taking $11,500 in bribes in the FBI's E-cycle sting operation.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

February 20, 2008 Knox Audits Prove It: Regular Audits Do NOT Look for Fraud, Waste, and Abuse

I have not blogged in-depth about Knox County conflicts of interest, open meeting violations, p-card abuse (purchasing cards), and audits.

The outrageous and illegal actions of Knox officials and employees have been headline news in the Knox News-Sentinel, on Knox talk radio, and on internet sites for over a year and will likely continue at a hot clip for at least another year.

The audits of vehicle usage, P-cards (county credit cards), the hospitality slush fund, community grants and grant awards, and several others are set to be released at long last.

One pre-audit casualty is Cynthia Finch, the Mayor's long-time aide. What the regular audits missed (fraud, waste, and abuse), special audits found (fraud, waste, and abuse found).

Now it's a waiting game to find out who and how much and whether the abusers just resign with a hefty severance package or whether they are truly held accountable for their actions.

Knoxville is fortunate to have a paper that has decided to do true investigative reporting (here and here) instead of government press release reporting. Morristown and Hamblen County are not so fortunate. Part I Part II Part III Part IV

Knoxville is fortunate to have a paper that stood up for open meetings and joined in a suit that exposed backroom deals and deliberations made outside of the public eye. Morristown and Hamblen County are not so fortunate.

Knoxville is fortunate that their major talk radio stations are not owned/partly owned by the same individuals who own the only newspaper. Morristown and Hamblen County are not so fortunate.

If you wonder what would happen if anyone investigated what happens in Morristown and Hamblen County, just take a look at the Knox County audits, the coverups, the lawsuits that it has taken to start the clean-up process, and the multiple resignations of which Cynthia Finch is only the latest.

Many Knoxvillians who were apathetic or who assumed everything was OK are now aware of the widespread conflicts, corruption, fraud, waste, and abuse that are at the core of their government. With INFORMATION provided by the News-Sentinel and talk radio, Knoxvillians came out on February 5th and started the clean-up process.

Monday, February 18, 2008

February 18, 2008 Fmr. State Sen. Jerry Cooper's $120,000 Fine Could Have Been $230,000

Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper has opined that former Sen. Jerry Cooper, who transferred $95,000 of campaign funds to his personal accounts, can be fined for each of the 23 separate campaign checks that he wrote to himself.

The attorney general's opinion was requested by the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance (TREF) after Jerry Cooper appealed the imposition of a $120,000 fine for his many conversions of campaign cash to personal cash. [AG Robert Cooper is not kin to former Sen. Jerry Cooper.]

Ironically, the state attorney general is saying that a much higher penalty could have been assessed by TREF against Cooper. If TREF fined Cooper for EACH of the 23 transactions at the maximum amount allowed, the total fine could have been as much as $230,000!

After reading the AG's opinion, Cooper is probably thinking that a $120,000 fine sounds really, really fair!

February 18, 2008 TN Waltz Sentencing: Former State Sen. Kathryn Bowers

Former State Sen. Kathryn Bowers was sentenced to 16-months in prison and two years on probation for taking an $11,500 bribe in the Tennessee Waltz scandal that rocked the Tennessee General Assembly in 2005.

Bowers is one of 12 officials across the state who sold out the public trust for private gain-- and was caught on tape by the FBI in an undercover public corruption operation.

February 17, 2008 Congressman Davis on Illegal Immigration

T-FIRE (Tennesseans for Immigration Reform and Education) hosted Congressman David Davis (1st District-TN) at the Morristown VFW on Saturday.

State Senator Steve Southerland introduced Congressman Davis. Davis began with remarks about energy prices, jobs, the economy, and healthcare. He then spoke at length about illegal immigration and its wide-ranging impact on law enforcement, education, healthcare, and social services.

A large crowd responded enthusiastically to Davis as he said that the key element is enforcing the law and recognizing that illegal means illegal. Davis emphasized that the border must be secured by completing the border fence, using technology to monitor movements around the border, and hiring additional border agents.

Davis also pushed for other commonsense solutions such as fining employers who knowingly hire illegal workers. Davis noted that rounding up 12-20 million illegal aliens and deporting them is not feasible; however, he added that voluntary self-deportation is possible. Davis told the crowd that significant numbers of illegal aliens in Arizona have voluntarily left that state as a result of restrictions and enforcement of hefty fines on employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens.

In closing, Davis reported that he will host a meeting in March in Morristown to bring local law enforcement, federal agents, and local officials together with the goal of facilitating a co-operative effort to address enforcement of illegal immigration laws in Morristown and Hamblen County.

Sheriff Esco Jarnagin, who was present at the T-FIRE event, also spoke briefly, saying that he appreciated and welcomed the opportunity to obtain federal help in addressing the mounting problems created by illegal aliens in Hamblen County.

Friday, February 15, 2008

February 15, 2008 Congressman David Davis To Discuss Illegal Immigration at Morristown VFW

T-FIRE (Tennesseans for Immigration Reform and Education) is hosting Congressman David Davis at the Morristown VFW at 10:00 a.m. tomorrow (Saturday, February 16).

Congressman Davis (1st-TN) will be speaking on illegal immigration.

State Senator Steve Southerland is scheduled to introduce Congressman Davis. Local elected officials have been invited to help welcome Congressman Davis to Morristown.

T-FIRE will serve a pancake breakfast from 8:30-9:45. Tickets for the breakfast are $5.00. If you would like to reserve a breakfast ticket to pick up at the door, please call Wayne Dollar, T-FIRE public relations director, at 581-8979 or call T-FIRE at 587-3711 and leave your name and the number of tickets to hold.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

February 3, 2008 Taxing Tennessee: A Taxpayer-Friendly Blog

A terrific taxpayer-friendly blog called Taxing Tennessee is recommended reading for taxpayers everywhere.

Ben Cunningham's posts are always interesting and informative. He recently linked to several noe4accountability posts on the local sales tax referendum.

Ben linked again to noe4accountability after my February 2 post.

Ben was a champion and leader in the anti-income tax campaign back in 2002, and he has continued to monitor tax developments across the state.

Thanks, Ben, for the links and for being a real friend to Tennessee taxpayers wherever they are!

February 3, 2008 Where's the Director of Schools on the Sales Tax?

Director of Schools Dale Lynch has been strangely quiet lately.

No front-page picture with smiling face telling everyone that increasing the local sales tax would be just wonderful. He's usually not one to back away from a fight. Could it be that even he finds it hard to ask county voters to tax themselves in part to help city taxpayers get a property tax cut?

Then again, maybe the Tribune is saving the good doctor for the final sales tax front-page advertising push on Monday.

There has been no mention of how the schools would actually use any increased sales tax revenue. Of course, there has also been no mention of how the schools have used the $5 Million in extra BEP money that was received earlier this year.

No mention of the existing school construction debt of $35 Million+ or - from the 1998 school construction program on which the county has spent millions in interest for years without paying a penny toward reducing the principal of the debt.

No mention of the $500,000 that the school system has paid to the county every year to help make the interest-only payments on the 1998 school construction program.

No one should worry too much about Dr. Lynch's silence. The good Dr. Lynch will be talking up a storm and he will find a way to spend every penny that comes his way---and more. The good Dr. Lynch and the Hamblen County School Board will be draining the taxpayers dry this year and next and the next.

Educational programs are started--e.g the vaunted Gateway Testing program--are pushed for a few years as a great educational innovation and then forgotten. And the layers and layers of administrative staff just grow and grow.

And student progress? Well, they always say that more money will somehow "improve" education. $5 million dollars in new BEP funding for Hamblen County was provided this school year. What improvements were made? Did any dollars go toward teacher merit pay? Did any dollars go to hire teachers in critical and hard to fill areas like physics, calculus, and advanced English?

I am happy to see that there is increased emphasis on the basics again. The 3 R's (reading, writing, and arithmetic) must be pushed in the early grades. Working toward improvement in the basics doesn't necessarily require any more money. What it does require, however, is a curriculum that stresses these skills and allots enough TIME for student mastery in the primary grades.

Money and education are not necessarily synonymous. However, when it comes to (tax) money and education, two things are certain:

1. You can bet your bottom (tax) dollar that Dr. Lynch, the school board, the city, and the county commission will never have enough of your (tax) dollars!

2. And some people in Hamblen County--particularly those at the upper economic levels--think that every dollar that is appropriated for the education budget is truly a dollar for "education." They haven't yet realized or won't admit that tax dollars in the "education" budget can be shifted, wasted, and manipulated just like tax dollars in any other city or county budget.

That's why someone needs to watch the school spending closely.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

February 2, 2008 Dialing (oops) Mailing for Dollars

The full-court press is on. Morristown Mayor Sami Barile and the city council have sent out their PRO-SALES TAX letters. [Click here to see Hamblen County Mayor David Purkey and Commission Chair Stancil Ford's pro-sales tax letters that were mailed by the local P-16 council. ] The Tribune is going full-tilt with pro-tax pictures, pro-tax interviews, pro-tax front-page articles, pro-tax everything.

If you click on the images above, you can read the desperate plea of city officials to city residents, "asking... encouraging...and recommending" that city residents vote YES to increase the local sales tax. The city is trying to piggyback on the schools and get a coalition of votes with the "for the children" theme. Strangely, the city actually had to send a reminder to the school board to get the school system to call a special meeting to jump on the "for the children" tax bandwagon.

The city is also using a variation of the county's 2002 "pick your poison" wheel tax referendum tactic. In 2002 the county told voters that the wheel tax referendum was an opportunity to pick your (tax) poison. The Tribune ran a banner headline and front-page article reporting that voters could EITHER vote for the wheel tax OR there would be a property tax increase. A majority of county voters took the bait and voted YES on the wheel tax. Then the county laughed and went ahead and added a 15-cent property tax increase three months later. So much for truth in politics.

The city has put a little twist on the county's 2002 "pick-your-poison" blackmail. Instead of waiting until after the referendum, the city raised property taxes a whopping 40-cents first. Then the sales tax referendum was put on the ballot with promises by the city that it will reduce its historic 40-cent property tax (poison) to a historic 25-cent (poison) if voters fall for the referendum bait again. Of course, the city can keep its promise by simply cutting the tax rate for one year and then go right back to the same old overspending and overborrowing again.

Just like the 2001 sales tax referendum and the 2002 wheel tax referendum, the Tribune is providing free front-page advertisements (oops) articles promoting higher sales taxes.

What's missing in this money grab? Accountability. Fiscal responsibility. Honesty. Concern for the taxpayers.

City and county government and the school board are pushing the tax increase for various reasons, most of which are hidden behind nifty words like what a great "opportunity" a sales tax increase is. One-half will be "for the children." The other half will be for city residents who will have their massive 40-cent tax increase pared back to a 25-cent tax increase. Yes, county residents get the wonderful opportunity to subsidize the city property tax reduction.

The real opportunity that the city is looking for is a way to grab more tax dollars. The city may make a one-time adjustment in the city property tax. Then the city will wait it out a year and jump right back in to hike the local property tax again and again as the impending financial disaster arrives. The disaster on the city doorstep is inevitable. Years and years of overspending and overborrowing have only postponed--at great cost--the time when the city has to "pay the piper."

The county also is looking for a way to grab more revenue while there is cover in saying it's all "for the children." The $5 million extra BEP funds that the School Board received this year are never mentioned. Just the familiar refrain of more, more, more money.
There are many county financial problems, and they go back to the pattern of overspending, overborrowing, and paying interest only on huge bond issues. The city and the county are in deep financial trouble.
There is no talk of righting the city or county financial ship of state. The only discussion taking place is about increasing the tax burden for citizens of Morristown and Hamblen County even more.

Interestingly, the school board is not pushing the sales tax nearly as persistently as one would expect. The board had to be cajoled by the County Mayor and City Mayor to hold a special meeting to endorse the sales tax increase. The school board's low profile in the tax debate is not all that surprising. Board credibility isn't high, and they do not want to draw any attention to the fact that the schools ALREADY RECEIVED over $5 Million extra BEP dollars this past year. Where did all that money go? The schools and teachers ought to be in great shape with that bonanza. Why doesn't the board like to discuss the way that it switches money all around after their budget is approved.

The familiar pro-tax opinions of Andy Smith, Tish Jones, Thom Robinson, David Purkey, Stancil Ford, Sami Barile, Jack Fishman, and Janice Haun get front-page or editorial page press day after day after day.
I am far more impressed with the honest and forthright opinions of taxpayers such as Dr. W. Robert Gronewald, H. Richard Haley, Gwen Holden, and others who have written letters to the editor expressing their disgust with $100 million dollar "wish lists," uncontrolled debt, a temporary wheel tax followed by county property tax increases, an unprecedented city property tax increase, and the ever-increasing costs to taxpayers of gas, milk, utilities, and insurance.

Many of those who draw a government paycheck every week--particularly elected officials who drive taxpayer-provided cars and get paid even when they don't show up for work--don't get it.
They have never punched a time clock or met a payroll with THEIR OWN MONEY.
They don't realize that there are people who have nothing--NOTHING--left at the end of the month. They don't realize that there are actually people out there who get NO pay raise, have NO pension, have NO health insurance, and have NOTHING left to give.

The schools have $5 million more BEP dollars this year than last year. Yet, in these toughest of economic times, the schools are trying to get more and the city is trying to piggyback on the schools.

When will the government have enough tax money? When it has ALL the money and ALL the power.

Friday, February 01, 2008

January 31, 2008 Morristown Goes Deeper in Debt UNANIMOUSLY

As Tennessee Ernie Ford would say, the City of Morristown is another day older and deeper in debt. The City Council approved another $8+ million of debt this week for overruns on road and building projects and still more sewer debt.

Councilman Mel Tucker apparently spoke out about the danger of piling on debt-- but then he turned around and voted with all other councilmen to pile on more debt!

Passing on debt and more debt to the next generation is the national, state, and local trend.

To cover the spend and borrow cycle, the city is desperately trying to convince voters that the old saying "Never vote yourself a tax increase" is outdated. Mayor Sami Barile and all six councilmen sent a 3-page "pick your poison" PRO-SALES TAX letter to Morristown residents early this week.

Too bad the city doesn't devote as much time to controlling its spending and debt as it has to its current Vote Yes for Sales Tax campaign.

If the city had been minding the financial store, there never would have been a nearly 40% property tax increase last year. And the county just keeps piling on debt and taxes, too.

Somebody needs to put the brakes on this borrow and spend and tax train! No matter how wonderful the city and county and school board think taxes are, the people of Morristown and Hamblen County can't afford a ticket to ride.