Franklin County administrator might lose job amid embezzlement scandal

By John Trumbo, Tri-City HeraldSeptember 29, 2012 

Franklin County Administrator Fred Bowen might lose his job because of allegations he mishandled information about an employee with a criminal past who held a key financial position with the county.

Commission Chairman Brad Peck told the Herald on Friday that Bowen should be fired for not informing the board what he learned in 2009 about the criminal history of Dennis Huston, the public works accounting manager at that time.

State auditors believe $2.8 million was stolen from the county since 1996.

"I knew Huston had a somewhat rough or shady past, but was unaware of the embezzlement," Peck told the Herald editorial board.

"Had I known I would've been tripping over myself to human resources to get him out of that position," Peck said.

In 2009, the FBI began investigating a tip that Huston had a previous theft conviction before he was hired by Franklin County and that he allegedly falsified an invoice and pocketed $21,000 to $40,000 for tires bought but never received.

During the FBI investigation Huston admitted to Bowen and his supervisor Tim Fife, the public works director, that he was convicted of stealing public money when he worked for a different agency in Montana two decades earlier. Huston also told a few other county employees.

Peck told the Herald that the revelation should have been brought to the attention of all three commissioners.

Commissioner Rick Miller received the original tip about Huston and took it to the prosecutor. Commissioner Bob Koch apparently didn't know of the allegations until after Huston's arrest this year.

"I'm angry two other people (Bowen and Fife) knew about the information and didn't share it with the commissioners," Peck said.

Bowen could not be reached at his office Friday afternoon. But he previously told a private investigator hired by the county that he told Peck about Huston's criminal history.

Commissioners fired Fife for mismanagement after details of the embezzlement scheme became known earlier this year.

Huston, 65, was arrested in February and fired. He is facing a trial in January on charges of first-degree theft, money laundering and cocaine possession.

Peck said all he knew at the time was a rumor about a shady deal involving tires and an FBI and grand jury investigation.

The FBI found no wrongdoing at the time, and it would be another two years before officials discovered that Huston allegedly was using a defunct supplier to submit phony invoices for payments to himself.

A state audit released this week shows $258,941 was taken in the two years after Huston told Bowen, Fife and a few co-workers about his criminal past.

Peck said he is most upset that Bowen didn't follow through on verifying public works invoices as he requested in 2010.

"I asked Bowen and Huston directly to verify the vouchers. I told them go to through the process and report back that it is accurate. They came back and said the process was sound, (but) signed vouchers for products not received," Peck said.

Still, Peck said it might be a mistake to be hasty in taking action against Bowen, and that there probably aren't two votes on the commission to fire the county's top executive.

Commissioner Bob Koch told the Herald on Friday that he wouldn't single out Bowen.

"I don't feel Bowen should be fired because a lot of other people knew about it, including the (former) prosecuting attorney and Commissioner Miller," Koch said.

Miller said when he joined the commission, he was told the practice was that the county administrator was not to interfere with the operation of the public works department.

"(Bowen) told me he was not supposed to go out there," Miller said.

Miller said when he first heard about the possible theft from public works, he hesitated on what to do.

"We had a mess and we had to figure out what was going on. There was no validity to it at that time so I didn't want to take it to the board, but turned it over to the prosecuting attorney, Steve Lowe," he said.

Lowe brought in the FBI, which did a nine-month investigation concluding there was no evidence of theft.

Then, after Huston began sharing his secret past, Miller said he felt Bowen mishandled the matter.

"A lot of people shuffled this under the table. I think they were on Huston's side," said Miller, who said he was ready to fire Bowen at that time.

"There were a lot of huge mistakes made, and some of them were (Bowen's)," Miller said.

But rather than fire Bowen, Miller said he would consider offering Bowen the construction management job for the jail project, and then Bowen would be gone when the jail is finished.

Peck claims Miller also is partially to blame for not bringing what he knew in 2009 to the full commission.

"Had Miller come to the board and asked for an executive session there is no doubt in my mind this would have ended in 2009," Peck said.

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