County hires firm to review resident’s complaint
Chesterfield audit investigation called inquiry unfounded
Amid concerns about Chesterfield County’s own internal audit investigation, the county hired an outside audit firm to independently review a resident’s complaint.
The county’s internal audit department determined that citizen watchdog Brenda Stewart’s complaint regarding the school system’s Supplemental Retirement Program was unfounded, but the department did not produce a report. Stewart had lodged the complaint in February through the county’s Fraud, Waste and Abuse hotline.
For $9,500, PBMares LLP is expected to investigate Stewart’s complaint and release a report by early October. A representative of PBMares LLP, which is based in Newport News and has offices throughout the Mid-Atlantic, didn’t respond to a request for comment Thursday.
“I think we wanted to ensure that our internal auditing department was conforming to the national standards of review as it relates to waste, fraud and abuse complaints,” said Chris Winslow, a county supervisor who sits on the Audit and Finance Committee, which oversees internal audit processes. “We thought it would be best to have a second set of eyes review the
Winslow said the lack of a report was a “major piece” of the reason that PBMares was hired. Steve Elswick, another supervisor on the county’s Audit and Finance Committee, didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday.
“Not only does the citizen not get a reasoned explanation for rejection of the complaint when no report is made, the audit director does not refer anything to the Audit and Finance Committee for review. It is left to the complainant to review the audit file, document the inadequate investigation and seek the committee’s review as I had to do in this case,” Stewart told the Board of Supervisors at a June 28 meeting.
Stewart declined to comment Thursday, saying she wanted to wait until the PBMares report is released.
After confirming the independent review, Greg Akers, who heads up the county’s internal audit department, said any further comment would be premature while the audit is underway.
The internal audit department often produces reports after its employees look into something. Oversight of the department’s work recently increased when Audit and Finance Committee members pushed to have committee members receive the department’s full reports. Previously, committee members were only given summaries of the findings of investigations.
“Based on my conversations with internal audit, they felt that the Board of Supervisor amendments to the (Supplemental Retirement Program) plan covered this situation in a way that was complete enough that relieved him of his obligation to create a report,” Winslow said. “We found that may not necessarily be the case, and wanted to explore the matter further.”
The Board of Supervisors approved changes to the Supplemental Retirement Program earlier this year after it was reported that its unfunded liability had reached $99 million by some calculations. The financial situation followed five years of the program going underfunded and errors in the assumptions that underpin the program— such as retiree projections — all while the number of retirees increased. Other than restricting participation requirements, supervisors also added oversight measures, including making SRP subject to county internal audit functions.
Under the SRP program, retired employees take up temporary jobs for one more year, performing tasks that may be similar to their pre-retirement work. For that one year of work, they are paid 175 percent of their former salary over a minimum of seven years.
Stewart’s complaint had to do with the participation of Sharon Thomas, the former chief executive to then-Superintendent Marcus J. Newsome, in the school system’s SRP.
Stewart argued that Thomas shouldn’t have been able to participate in the program. SRP requires that participants must work 10 years in the Chesterfield school system, unless they were terminated due to a reorganization approved by the School Board. Thomas hadn’t worked 10 years, but in a letter responding to Stewart’s concerns, School Board Attorney Wendell Roberts wrote that Thomas’ position was eliminated and replaced by a chief of staff position during a reorganization.
Stewart argued that Thomas’ position wasn’t eliminated, but simply revised and given a new name.
Stewart also contended that the May 24, 2016, vote School Board members took to approve Thomas’ participation was improper because some citizens at the meeting made it known that they couldn’t access the document that listed Sharon Thomas as a potential SRP participant. The School Board attorney defended the vote.
Thomas’ work during the program also raised concerns. School Board policy says an employee in SRP should perform work similar to tasks they performed before retirement. Yet Thomas performed work below her former pay grade. Each year, she is able to collect 175 percent of her pre-retirement salary divided by the number of years she elected to be paid out.
Thomas earned $168,953 in fiscal year 2015 as chief executive to the superintendent, but worked as the paralegal/ public records coordinator under the SRP program. The coordinator position has a salary cap of $71,263.
“Please know that I understand your position that Dr. Thomas’ SRP assignment as the paralegal/ public records coordinator is not the ‘same or equivalent’ to her prior position. Given the wide variance in the pay grade levels between the two positions, I cannot disagree,” Roberts, the School Board attorney, wrote in his response letter to Stewart.
But Roberts went on to note that School Board policy affords the superintendent flexibility in making SRP assignments and that her current assignment is consistent with her prior training and experience. He added that he confirmed with other long-term staff members that there were numer- ous assignments made in a similar manner dating to 2010.
After she received Roberts’ letter, Stewart filed a Fraud, Waste and Abuse complaint in February.
Schools spokesman Shawn Smith said that school and county leaders studied the SRP plan for a significant part of last year, and that after reviewing individual concerns, the county’s internal audit department determined there was no wrongdoing and the School Board attorney said no further action could be taken.
“The School Board, the superintendent, and school division leadership remain prepared to take additional action should any of its advisers or auditors share an alternate solution,” Smith wrote in an email. “In the event that this additional audit produces a different result, we are more than prepared to comply with the recommendations; however, if the auditor affirms the original opinions of the county internal auditor, then we suggest that this complaint be closed permanently.”
Akers’ department is already looking into the overall operations of the school’s Supplemental Retirement Program. That audit, Winslow said, is “to ascertain the extent that personnel were either approved from SRP or removed from SRP.”
Another question that has been raised is whether School Board members were able to make several changes to SRP without Board of Supervisors approval. Under state law, the Board of Supervisors has the final authority to modify the school system’s SRP.