Franklin County has a mess on its hands.
We're sure the county commissioners are tired of hearing all the things that went wrong in the case of former employee Dennis Huston, who investigators believe may have stolen more than a $1 million during his time as an accountant in the Public Works Department.
And they should be eternally grateful for the diligence of County Auditor Matt Beaton and his staff for discovering the misdeed.
No, the current commissioners weren't in office when Huston, who has not been charged with a crime, was hired more than 20 years ago. But they now have the opportunity to correct a lot of processes to prevent future employee thefts like the one Huston is accused of committing.
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First off, it appears no one bothered to check references when Huston was hired. If they had, county officials would have found that he had just recently been released from federal custody for stealing taxpayer money to fuel his drug habit. He was a finance officer with the federal Bureau of Reclamation in Montana when he used fake invoices to channel money to himself.
More than two decades later, Huston is suspected of operating much the same way in Franklin County and getting away with it for more than a decade.
County officials say there was no human resources department when Huston was hired in 1989 as an accountant.
But that's no excuse for failing to check references on candidates for a job handling the taxpayers' money. The county engineer at the time hired him with the commissioners' blessing.
Huston allegedly used a company that once did work for Franklin County but went out of business in 2001 to funnel money into his own pockets.
The Public Works Department is the only one in the county with a separate accounting department, which Huston headed. Clearly, more oversight is needed.
The only reason Huston's scheme unraveled was because of the work of Beaton, who took office in 2011. His office was doing a routine audit to confirm that the 2,000 vendors being paid by the county were legit. It turns out that Critzer Equipment of Spokane was defunct but still receiving checks from the county, and that led to the suspicions Huston now faces.
Huston was arrested Feb. 2. The allegations include money laundering, theft and cocaine possession, though no charges have been filed and Huston has been released from jail pending further investigation. He has been fired from his $76,164-a-year job.
We don't blame the investigators for taking some time to build their case. With estimates already at $1 million for the theft, it's likely the final number will be larger. Who knows what else will be found in the process?
This could just be the tip of the iceberg. After all, the county's financial software is 28 years old. More modern versions could help detect fraud. On two occasions, the money has been budgeted to upgrade the software, but then used for other purposes.
"Fraud occurs when need meets opportunity," Beaton said. While no system is perfect, his office's job is to reduce the opportunity for fraud as much as possible. And it looks like he may have done just that.
Huston's case, regardless of how the criminal investigation progresses, will no doubt bring sweeping changes to the way money is handled in Franklin County.
Accountability is key with the public's money. And we're confident the commissioners will see to it that a better system of checks and balances is put into place and that the auditor has the tools and software necessary to do the job.