Closing the barn door
County builds new protections for taxpayer dollars
Although law enforcement officers are, far more often than not, the “good guys with guns” who show up in times of need, it’s nonetheless unnerving for most people when they come calling.
The unexpected appearance of an officer, whether a patrol officer or an investigator, is enough to make one’s heart skip a beat, because it begs the question: What’s wrong?
For the Benton County comptroller’s office, that day was Sept. 6, 2016. Officers from the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service made contact with comptroller Brenda Guenther “about irregularities involving an employee’s administration of county funds.” What’s been revealed in the months since recommend that as perhaps the understatement of the year.
A day after those investigators inquired, the county fired Connie Guild, the accounts payable and grants manager. She had worked for the county for 16 years. Then, a few days ago, the results of an audit showed more than $1.1 million was taken from a county travel fund over a 10-year period. Guild was the custodian of that fund, according to the audit report.
The discovery has naturally led county leaders to lay on the adjectives: Appalled.
Shocked. Disappointed. Astonished.
“We’re bitter. We’re hurt,” Guenther said of the thefts. “There’s going to be a black eye for the county. We all know it.”
Those adjectives undoubtedly describe some of the reactions of taxpayers, too. History has shown county governments across Arkansas provide fertile ground for shenanigans with public resources. Misuse of government cars and equipment, theft of county materials, and outright stealing of taxpayer dollars are not unheard of. But it shocks every time.
And it raises the obvious questions: How could this have happened? Isn’t anyone minding the store? Who’s to blame?
In this particular case, one mind-boggling part of the missing money is that it appears to have happened over the course of nearly a half-dozen county judges and a few comptrollers. If there’s “blame” to go around, it can be spread around pretty far and wide. Now auditors have devoted a lot of time to connecting the dots.
What’s certain — and really a no-brainer in 20/20 hindsight — is that the county suffered from internal control deficiencies, according to the audit.
A total of $1,136,606 in questionable and inadequately documented disbursements resulted from internal control deficiencies, according to the report. According to the audit report, Guild would post “additional undocumented disbursement” to legitimate travel claims, according to the report. Most of the undocumented disbursements were coded to fuel costs, the report said, “and resulted in the County Treasurer issuing a check to the travel fund for significantly more than the legitimate, documented travel expenses.” The check issued to the travel fund was cashed, and Guild would replenish the travel fund for the legitimate, documented travel expenses “leaving the undocumented cash balance unaccounted for.”
County Judge Barry Moehring, who took office in January after serving as a Benton County justice of the peace, has told the Quorum Court serious changes to the accounting processes have been under way and more are to come. There’s more segregation of duties with improved oversight and the travel cash fund has been eliminated. The county will end the use of “generic” credit cards, instead having cards assigned to specific employees, Moehring said. An inventory of all county assets value at $5,000 or more will be undertaken and a risk assessment will be conducted.
“Not only are we doing everything internally that we know to do, we’re getting external help,” Moehring said. “We’re taking a number of recourses, across-the-board, to increase the level of professionalism and accountability in Benton County. There will still be dishonest people. There are people in any organization who will try to do dishonest things. We’re going to make that as difficult as possible for that to occur again.”
Sometimes it takes a major breakdown to awaken a new sense of urgency in the protection of public money. Accountability systems must be like most companies’ information technology offices that are constantly fighting hackers; they must assume someone is trying to steal all the time. That’s not to say county officials should constantly distrust employees, but the systems they put in place should be based on healthy skepticism. No system should go 10 years and $1.1 million before discovering abuses. The most damning evidence of Benton County’s failings over the entire decade or more is that external agencies had to show up to look into “discrepancies.”
Now, Benton County officials will have to deal with the fallout. What fallout? It’s always hard to tell how people will take these kinds of corruption cases. But just the other day this newspaper covered a tour of Benton County courts facilities as the county attempts to make plans to renovate or replace them.
A reader online offered this thought: “I vote No. If you got a million for your employees to steal then you don’t need to raise the tax millage on the backs of the taxpayers.”
There’s still work to be done in recovering from this mess.