Benton auditors race hinges on commission issue

KENNEWICK -- Claude Oliver says he's running for Benton County auditor because $500,000 went missing for two years and the county auditor didn't investigate.

A whistleblower's complaint a year ago revealed that the Benton and Franklin bicounty Human Services Department had overpaid Tri-Cities Community Health, formerly known as Community Health Center La Clinica.

There was no county investigation because Community Health repaid the money as soon as the mistake was reported and became public, county officials have said.

Chilton, who was appointed auditor 10 months ago after longtime Auditor Bobbie Gagner retired at the end of 2009, said Community Health's error that came to light in 2007 was a contract compliance issue between the agency and county commissioners, not a concern for the auditor.

Oliver was a county commissioner until voters replaced him in November 2008.

He has focused largely on the 3-year-old $500,000 issue in his campaign.

"Someone has to look at why this has gone on unnoticed. ... That someone should be the auditor," he said.

His claim is just political fodder, Chilton said.

"Never once did he make this an auditor issue until he decided to run for auditor," Chilton said.

Oliver, who was county treasurer for 14 years and then county commissioner for 12 years until January 2009, says Chilton is dodging the issue.

"It's her job. That issue should have been handled by the county auditor. It is the county's last line of defense," Oliver said. He noted the auditor, under state law, is to "audit all claims, demands and accounts against the county."

Chilton said auditing claims, reviewing vouchers and checking for authorized signatures is the auditor's responsibility, and she can call attention to questionable expenditures.

But she noted the county had a contract for services that allowed Community Health to receive money in advance and provide services later, adjusting the balance as needed. "It was a compliance problem (involving commissioners), not an auditor issue," she said.

Oliver informed county officials by e-mail in November 2007 about Greater Columbia Behavioral Health staff discovering the problem, but there was no follow-up.

Until then, Oliver had served on the behavioral health governing board as a county commissioner.

Nearly two years later, a former Community Health employee complained about the overcharges.

Soon after that, county officials accepted Community Health's offer to refund $500,000 without investigating to see if the amount was correct, Oliver said.

"The officials, including the auditor, didn't do their jobs. It was a coverup," he charged.

After Oliver was voted out of office, he continued to raise concerns and announced in March that he would run for auditor.

He says he will do a 90-day review to determine how to cut costs and improve efficiencies and will make better use of the county's finance committee. He is considering contracting out services for all except the auditor's financial duties.

He is a graduate of Central Washington University with a degree in political science and additional studies in business and economics. He is endorsed by the Benton County Young Republicans.

Chilton said her government experience and proven good working relationship with other county officials make her the best candidate.

"I have the qualifications which by far exceed those of my opponent in performing the duties of the office," Chilton said, noting that she has had supervisory roles in all aspects of the office -- recording, licensing, elections and financial services. Her office has 23 employees and a $2.5 million annual budget.

Since being appointed, Chilton has produced a video voters guide, begun converting paper records to digital records, arranged for credit and debit card payments at the licensing division and plans to provide marriage licensing services at the Richland office. She also eliminated the chief deputy position to reduce costs.

Chilton said she would like to move all elections employees from Prosser to Kennewick to better serve the public and improve efficiency.

She has a degree from Columbia Basin College and worked 16 years as a paralegal for a Pasco law office before being hired in 1998 at the auditor's office. She is endorsed by the Benton County Republican Committee.

* John Trumbo: 509-582-1529; jtrumbo@tricityherald.com