Tensions high in Franklin County amid embezzlement scandal

Geoff Folsom, Tri-City HeraldMarch 29, 2014 

Tensions are running high between two Franklin County departments in the wake of accounting changes made after the Dennis Huston embezzlement scandal.

The public works department's three accountants were moved to Auditor Matt Beaton's office two years ago, after Huston, the county's former public works accounting manager, admitted to siphoning $2.8 million from the county for more than two decades.

He is serving a 16-year sentence at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell.

Moving public works accountants to work alongside the auditors was done so they could strengthen and sharpen one another as well as increase efficiencies and reduce costs, Commissioner Brad Peck said.

But the public works department hasn't been paying the county auditor all the money required to perform accounting services.

Public works paid $110,000 that it owed the auditor's office for services covering January through June 2013, Beaton said.

But it didn't pay the final $62,000.

"There seems to be a disconnect between what the board directed and what the staff is implementing," Beaton told county commissioners at a meeting this week.

Public works Director Matt Mahoney said he was concerned that the documentation the auditor's office was providing did not show public works was getting its "true and full value" for the work provided. He wanted to know exactly how much time auditor's employees were spending on public works tasks.

"I think that's a very documentable value to come up with, and it's one that we're required to do on a daily basis when we submit to the state and to the feds for reimbursement," he said.

Peck is getting tired of the county and commissioners being criticized for changes not coming quickly enough, he said. He told the men they should have settled their differences before taking it to the board of commissioners.

"A lot of that has been because this board has provided the resources and patience allowing staff to get things worked out," he said. "And frankly, I'm tired of providing resources and patience. My patience is over."

Peck then pounded the tabletop as he told Mahoney and county Administrator Fred Bowen: "Get this figured out now."

He told the Beaton he would like him to be involved with the discussions, but that the board can't direct him because he is an elected official.

The $172,000 public works was supposed to pay the auditor in 2013 is less than the $232,000 public works paid in 2011, when its own accountants did the work, Beaton said, saying that's a 26 percent savings.

The auditor's office also provides a certified public accountant and former state auditor to review the department's finances.

"What it feels like is a bureaucratic pushback of something I'm trying to implement and the board is trying to implement," Beaton told Mahoney. "What we keep looping back into is that you disagree with the calculation, but you haven't provided any other calculation.

"It's been six or seven months. ... I wish you had more appreciation for the amount of professionalism and the designations of what we have in our office."

The county might not really be saving as much as Beaton estimates, Mahoney said.

"A lot of the duties that were done in our office are still retained in our office," he said. "They're just being done by other individuals, including myself, including (county engineer Matt Rasmussen)."

Peck asked Mahoney or Bowen, who supports Mahoney's position, to find a state law requiring the auditor to provide details about what it is asking to be paid, if there is such a law.

He also questioned why the public works department had been dealing with the issue for eight months and only two weeks ago asked the county's legal department about it.

"If it comes down to local discretion, then the board can have a discussion about what standard ought to be applied," Peck said.

Mahoney questioned why the disagreement had to come before the commissioners at all. Beaton said it was because Mahoney referred the auditor pay issue to the county's legal department.

Commissioner Rick Miller said the issue should have been resolved long ago.

"We're doing the right thing. We're taking corrective action in this county," he said. "I still think the bills should be paid."

Peck was comfortable that Mahoney's department was acting in good faith. "But we have a professional difference of opinion. Let's find out what regulating authority there is," he said.

-- Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; gfolsom@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom

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