County hires firm to re­view res­i­dent’s com­plaint

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - METRO RTD - BY VANESSA REMMERS

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

com­plaint.”

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.

Stew­art

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