Whitley County’s Judge-Executive has dropped an effort to root out the names of individuals whose complaints triggered an state audit into the county’s finances following the release of a document by the office of the Kentucky Auditor of Public Accounts which indicates two of the county’s magistrates are at least partially responsible for the examination.
Amber Owens, Director of County Projects for the county, said any legal challenges have been shelved for now after the Auditor’s Office recently released a letter, written June 12, 2013, by Magistrates Jamie Fuson and Robbie Brown expressing concern that four employees of the county’s Road Department were given pay raises prior to approval by the Fiscal Court.
"After we talked with them [the Auditor’s Office] they did provide us with this letter. It is our understanding that most of the complaints that came in were probably phone calls. In order to get those would require a lawsuit, more than likely, and we didn’t feel that’s something that was in the best interest of the county,” Owens said. “It would be expensive and we feel like citizens’ tax dollars are better spent in other places.
White has contended that the complaints that led to the audit were politically motivated, designed to hurt him in the recent Primary Election, and without basis.
In the letter, Fuson and Brown mentioned four Road Department employees they felt were given pay raises without Fiscal Court consent: Infrastructure Director Jimmy Bates, Lowell Bennett, Larry Kersey and Eddie Hill. Both asked that the auditor provide “guidance” on how to handle pay raises being ordered by the Judge-Executive without Fiscal Court approval, preferred or accepted practices for pay increases and whether the raises would be a “disallowed expenditure” by the county.
Most notably, though, they asked for “the Auditor’s Office [to] perform a full review of the monthly records to determine the total times rate increases were issued without approve of the Fiscal Court.”
Owens said auditors took the complaint seriously.
“That was one of the things they brought up,” Owens said. “They spent several weeks with the payroll office going over records and through files and all the pay rates and procedures of the payroll office.”
In the end, the auditors found no wrongdoing.
The issue, ultimately, was one of confusion over timing.
Owens said magistrates were provided with sheets detailing proposed pay rates that would go into effect if approved. In each instance they pre-dated meeting dates of the fiscal court because the county’s pay period starts before fiscal court meetings are held. The pay raises took effect retroactively so as to avoid split pay periods.
“It just makes it simple for the payroll office to calculate time that way,” Owens said. “Nobody had been paid yet, though, and no one would be paid the increased rate unless the fiscal court approved it. Those were just proposed rates.”
Brown said Fuson wrote the letter and he simply signed it as a way to “clarify” that things were being done correctly. He said he was simply confused on the timing of the pay increases.
“I wanted to clear myself of any wrongdoing,” Brown said. “It was kind of an oversight in the way our payroll cycle worked. I didn’t see that on my part.”
White has contended that complaints that led to the audit were politically motived and without merit.
“The timing of it before the primary appears to have some election-related motives to it. I believe that, obviously, someone out there had some improper motives and reasoning for all these complaints,” White said.
The issue has become a contentious one because of the cost involved. Normally, the county is audited by a private firm at a cost of $13,000 to $15,000. White said since the audit was conducted by the Auditor of Public Accounts, it would be considerably more. Officials haven’t gotten the bill yet, but are expecting it will be somewhere between $30,000 and $40,000. The county will be responsible for paying the bill.
“If somebody is costing the taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars by having this audit done just to try to help them in a political campaign … then maybe they should bear some of the cost of all this themselves. That seems only fair.”
Brown said he’s glad the audit showed things were being done correctly and denies he signed the letter for political reasons.
“I didn’t file mine to be a complaint against the judge. Pat and I don’t always see eye to eye, but I don’t regret signing that paper. I was just trying to clear myself.”
Fuson ran against White in May’s Republican Primary for Judge-Executive and was defeated. He will be replaced on the fiscal Court in January.
Brown won re-election in his district over a large field of opponents. He said he’s spoken numerous times with White recently and feels like the two are on good terms.
White initially filed a request under the Kentucky Open Records Act Aug. 6 asking for “copies of all written, notes, recordings, or any other supporting documentation pertaining to complaints received by the State Auditor’s Office in reference to the audit for Whitley County Fiscal Court for Fiscal Year 2012-2013 including the names, addresses and or phone numbers of such persons making said complaints.”
In a letter responding to the request, Robert E. McBeath, General Counsel for Kentucky’s Auditor of Public Accounts, Adam Edelen, denied the request saying the records being asked for are “APA audit, examination, or investigation workpapers.”
“APA audit, examination, and investigation workpapers are not subject to disclosure under the Open Records Act,” McBeath wrote. “This exemption does not expire upon the issuance of a final report of an audit, examination or investigation.”
White said he felt the denial was erroneous, and had planned to appeal and was even mulling a lawsuit to pry loose the information before deciding against the move following release of the letter.