Franklin County has steep climb to restore confidence

April 1, 2012 

The fallout continues in the Franklin County embezzlement case, with the public works director the latest casualty.

Tim Fife was fired last week from his $107,817-a-year job after 25 years with Franklin County because he did not discover the alleged embezzlement, which officials now believe spanned at least 15 years.

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

And he's right, the county should be embarrassed. Former public works accountant Dennis M. Huston has not been charged with a crime, but he is suspected of stealing nearly $3 million from the county.

And every time Huston submitted an apparently fraudulent voucher, Fife or his assistant director were required to sign a voucher attesting to its accuracy. Fife and his assistant, Guy Walters, had been on paid leave since Huston was arrested Feb. 2.

Franklin County couldn't have made an acceptable argument for keeping Fife in his role as department head. As for Walters, he now has been placed on unpaid leave while the commissioners determine his fate.

The county has filed a civil lawsuit against Huston, who was fired shortly after his arrest, seeking more than $2.8 million officials allege he stole since 1996.

What it really boils down to is that Franklin County lacked a basic system of checks and balances for purchases in the public works department.

The managers didn't have modern tools that might have helped catch the alleged thefts much sooner (Franklin County recently approved $1 million for new financial software) but that's not much of a defense.

The accounting software was antiquated and lacked built-in safeguards designed to flag questionable expenditures. But that doesn't explain the lack of oversight over inventory. Despite the lack of technology to help the department, processes should have been in place to verify receipt of goods purchased. Businesses have been checking purchases against deliveries for centuries. Franklin County dropped the ball.

Even without the right systems in place, the embezzlement could have -- and should have -- been discovered in 2009. Commissioner Miller received an anonymous letter stating that Huston was stealing from the county. While the specific allegations in the letter were not founded, according to an FBI investigation, the county had a duty to look more broadly at Huston's work.

The letter's claim that he'd been convicted of a similar crime in Montana could have been verified with a phone call.

Once the allegations were raised, Fife should not have been comfortable signing off on Huston's vouchers without 100 percent confidence in his work. An audit at the time likely would have caught the problem before more money was stolen.

Many questions still remain about how someone steals money for so long from a county government without being caught. It looks as if the county commissioners are being deliberate in their investigation, tackling decisions once they have the evidence they need.

On the bright side, Franklin County's shortcomings in the checks and balances department have spurred other agencies, governments and businesses to look at their own practices and adjust as needed.

It's unlikely county residents will ever be satisfied with the measures taken to resolve the embezzlement case because it's so hard to fathom how it could have happened in the first place.

Holding folks like Fife accountable is a necessary step, as is the purchase of new software. Going after Huston in civil court is another move in the right direction, though it's unlikely success in that case would bring much remedy.

Criminal charges would bring some sense of justice, but it will take Franklin County officials a long time to regain public trust.

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