Franklin County Commission fires head of public works

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldMarch 27, 2012 

— Franklin County's public works director and engineer was fired Monday in the wake of the county's embezzlement scandal.

Commissioners said Monday that Tim Fife's mismanagement allowed the embezzlement of county funds to go on for longer than it should have.

After about two hours behind closed doors Monday, county commissioners unanimously approved firing Fife effective immediately.

"The county is embarrassed by this fraud that should have been caught a long time ago," said Commissioner Rick Miller.

Commission Chairman Brad Peck said the board no longer had confidence in Fife's ability to lead the public works department.

Fife is not suspected of criminal wrongdoing, officials said. The decision Monday was based on his management of the department, they said. Fife, who attended a portion of Monday's closed-door session, declined later to talk to the Herald about the board's decision.

The county has benefited over the years from Fife's work, Peck said.

Fife, a 25-year county employee, became the county's public works director and engineer in 1992 and was paid $107,817 a year.

He and Guy Walters, the assistant public works director, were on paid administrative leave since Dennis M. Huston was arrested Feb. 2. Six other county employees who were placed on leave during the investigation returned to work Feb. 16.

Huston was the public works accounting and administrative director and was suspected of stealing more than $2.8 million through false invoices using the name of Spokane company Critzer Equipment, court documents stated.

Huston, 65, is not charged with a crime but has been fired. He initially was arrested but then released while county and state officials investigate the theft allegations. The state Attorney General's Office still is investigating.

In the meantime, the amount that is suspected of being taken has nearly tripled from initial estimates of about $1 million.

On Monday, commissioners placed Walters, a 34-year county employee, on unpaid leave effective immediately pending further investigation. A decision could be made Wednesday about his employment, Peck said. Walters makes $83,776 a year.

As assistant director, Walters did not have the same level of responsibility as Fife did, Peck said.

In some cases, Walters signed some of the apparently fraudulent vouchers that included payments to Critzer Equipment, Miller said.

Peck said the county needs to determine if Walters should be held to the same standards as Fife. Walters, who did not attend the meeting, could not be reached at home Monday.

Miller said there were red flags that could have prevented the county's current problem. For example, accounting software was not updated, and there was no inventory process that could have found the discrepancies among the invoices and the county's supply of vehicle parts.

"There has been a lot of mismanagement on Mr. Fife's part," Miller said.

Huston allegedly used Critzer Equipment's name to steal from the county since 1996, even before the Spokane company closed in 2001.

Documents show that the invoices claimed payments for vehicle parts that the county says it never received.

Peck said Monday that commissioners received an independent investigator's draft report confirming some information about the issues and problems in public works. For example, the department lacked an adequate inventory system and sufficient internal controls, he said.

And Peck said he repeatedly has reminded Fife that signing vouchers means he is agreeing they're accurate.

"As it turns out, they were not," he said.

Last week, Franklin County filed a civil lawsuit against Huston and his wife seeking more than $2.8 million the county claims Huston embezzled since 1996.

Huston was hired as a public works accountant in May 1989, less than eight months after he finished serving 21 months in federal custody for embezzlement.

He was convicted in 1986 of stealing $142,000 in taxpayer money by using a fake company while he was a finance officer with a federal agency in Montana. At that time, he said he had a drug problem.

Huston became Franklin County Public Works director of accounting and administration in January 2001, according to court documents.

In 2009, the FBI investigated Huston because of an anonymous complaint that accused him of stealing county money, according to documents obtained by the Herald. The FBI told county officials that they found nothing.

-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com

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