Guy Walters, Franklin County's deputy public works director, will be returning to work after county commissioners found "no significant fault" by Walters in the alleged embezzlement of more than $2.8 million by a former public works manager.
Walters was placed on paid administrative leave Feb. 2 after it came to light that Dennis M. Huston may have used false invoices from a defunct company to steal millions from the county while he worked there as the public works accounting and administrative director.
The alleged theft is under investigation by the state Attorney General's Office. Huston has not been charged with a crime, but was fired in February.
Commissioners switched Walters' leave to unpaid March 26, at the same time that they fired Walters' boss, Public Works Director Tim Fife.
Fife was not suspected of criminal wrongdoing, but was fired for his management of the department, commissioners told the Herald at the time.
Franklin County Commission Chairman Brad Peck told the Herald on Wednesday that he and commissioners Bob Koch and Rick Miller decided after a 45-minute closed-door discussion with Walters to restore his pay for the last several days.
Peck said it was the culmination of an investigation that convinced commissioners that Walters had no criminal involvement in the alleged theft and only minimal administrative involvement.
"It was my opinion he was operating by the guidelines given to him by his supervisor," Peck said.
Walters plans to retire in September after 34 years with the county, but Peck was emphatic that Walters had talked about retiring before the alleged theft came to light.
"The board did not tell him to retire," Peck said. "He had been talking about it for several months. In general terms, we want to communicate that we're not finding any significant fault in Mr. Walters' performance."
Peck said the county will move quickly to rebuild its Public Works Department, but commissioners haven't yet decided what the revamped department might look like or whether management of its accounts will be transferred to the county Auditor's Office, he said.
Commissioners plan to move quickly to replace Fife in some form as he was the only person in the department with the Professional Engineer designation, and the county is required to have a PE either on staff or contract with one.
Franklin County's contract with Benton County's engineer is set to expire at the end of April, and Peck said Benton County has indicated the contract won't be extended.
So Franklin County either needs to hire someone quickly or contract with another county, Peck said.
State law requires that the county contract with a public-sector engineer rather than a private engineer or firm, he added.
Peck said the county is grateful Walters will stay on for several more months while the department is in transition.
"In a situation like this, where Mr. Walters was looking at retiring, the county appreciates the fact he has served the county for 34 years and has done a lot of great work in that time," Peck said. "It is a benefit to the county that he'll be here through the summer."
In the meantime, Peck said the staffing disruptions haven't resulted in delays to any scheduled public works projects.
One main project is the extension of Road 100 to Easy Street and Dent Road. That work is scheduled to finish in August, according to the county's website.
-- Michelle Dupler: 582-1543; firstname.lastname@example.org