Clos­ing the barn door

County builds new pro­tec­tions for tax­payer dol­lars

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE -

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.

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