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Sheriff requests SBI probe

WINDSOR – The letter is in the mail, or soon will be.

At the request of the Bertie County Board of Commissioners, Bertie Sheriff Greg Atkins will forward a formal request to the State Bureau of Investigation asking for a financial probe into alleged misuse of county credit cards issued to the Bertie Board of Education and Central Office staff.

This request came on the heels of an internal audit of the credit cards used by Bertie County Public Schools personnel. That 73-page report n one that detailed questionable, sometimes extravagant, expenses n was publicly released during Monday’s Board of Commissioners meeting.

Windsor attorney Lloyd Smith, who serves as legal counsel to the commissioners, informed the board members and a standing-room only crowd that the matter deserves further investigation. While the audit along with Smith’s interpretation of the report both stopped short of labeling the questionable spending practices as outright fraud, he did say he had drawn some “disturbing conclusions.”

“There are many instances where State Statutes were violated,” Smith said. “They are misdemeanor violations involving obtaining property by false pretense and filing a false report.”

Smith continued, “I have spoken with Sheriff Atkins about this report as well as speaking with District Attorney (Valerie) Asbell and the SBI. My recommendation is for you (commissioners) to direct either Sheriff Atkins or Mrs. Asbell to send a formal request to the SBI asking for assistance in investigating this matter.”

Contacted by phone yesterday (Wednesday) morning, Atkins said he was waiting for final documentation from Smith.

“I expect to have that by later today (Wednesday) and in the mail by Thursday,” Atkins said.

The audit was performed over a time frame of July 1, 2003 through June 30, 2005. That was during the administrative period of former BCPS Superintendent John Smith Sr.

“We did not find any evidence of fraud, but neglect in following policies and procedures and the General Statutes of the state of North Carolina,” said Gerrelene M. Walker, a Tarboro CPA who performed the audit.

Walker added, “The Board of Education and the employees of Bertie County Public Schools should maintain a high degree of integrity as an example for the children of Bertie County. The board should also have a high degree of integrity as managers of state, federal and local funds.”

Walker’s report noted public funds were expended when they did not serve a public purpose. It also revealed numerous instances where receipts for expenses (meals, travel, lodging, miscellaneous purchases, etc.) were not submitted by BCPS employees filing for reimbursements.

One of the “high ticket” questionable items found in the audit was a $17,000 trip to Portsmouth, Va., one that then Superintendent Smith called an administrative retreat. There, the hotel bill came to $7,736.69 while meals totaled $5,434.82. There was also a $2,042 charge for a river cruise taken by 46 individuals. It was noted that the spouses of some BCPS staffers and School Board members attended the retreat.

Walker also noted that during the two-year period covered by the audit, meals at local restaurants charged to the school system’s credit cards totaled $31,021.40. Another $1,329.50 was listed under employee per diem meals. She said most did not include documentation (listings of the menu items ordered, type of drinks consumed, number of people served and the purpose of the meal).

In addition, Walker reported that of the 150 meal tickets which were itemized, alcoholic beverages were purchased in seven.

Walker said State Statutes were also violated in the following cases:

Cover charges at the House of Blues in New Orleans during a June, 2004 conference attended by BCPS staff.

Admittance on the “Maid of the Mist” n a boat tour of Niagara Falls that came while nine BCPS staffers were attending a September, 2004 No Child Left Behind conference in Rochester, N.Y.

Filing a false reports or submitting false records were noted when BCPS employees filed for reimbursement for travel to the same town or area. The audit showed different employees used different mileage to the same location.

Violations were found in the $1,254.83 BCPS had to pay over a two-year period for credit card late payment and over-limit fees.

There were other cases of gifts being purchased on the credit cards. Walker noted that it appeared that Central Office personnel were the beneficiaries of the gifts. However, there were no itemized lists of the gifts nor were the recipients identified.

In another instance, a BCPS credit card was used on Nov. 2, 2004 to pay for admittance into Universal Studios for four individuals attending a conference in Orlando, Fla. This expense was reimbursed.

Room service, telephone use, in-room movies, clothing, entertainment and valet parking also showed-up on credit card bills from various conferences attended by BCPS personnel. This violates the state’s Travel Policies Manual which says that employees should be responsible for additional expenses incurred for personal preference or convenience.

There was also documentation to show that diet pills, a GPS system and an XM Satellite Radio system were purchased on BCPS credit cards.

Assistant BCPS Superintendent Thomas Ruffin, who remains employed with the system, was mentioned 12 times for questionable spending. He has reimbursed the system over $1,700, including approximately $1,000 in expenses incurred by his wife who accompanied Ruffin on an April, 2004 trip to England.

Former BCPS Finance Officer Earnest Howard was said to be in violation of several State Statutes for not requiring his department to adhere to proper processing of invoices.

Howard was also targeted for ordering over-priced items from a supply company when the same could have been purchased cheaper through a state contract or from WalMart.

Walker also found several instances of where BCPS staff attended in-state training seminars that did not require overnight stay, but yet motel charges were incurred. In a related issue, personnel attending those seminars filed for meal reimbursements although the costs for those meals were included in the registration fee.

In her report, Walker released the names of BCPS personnel who submitted the questionable reimbursements in the aforementioned cases. They included Central Office staff JoAnne Harrell, Director of Food Services, Sharon Bond, Earnestine Byrd, Patricia Dobbin, Communication Skills Coordinator, Bobby Occena, Director of Vocational Education/Student Services, Judy Rankins, Director of Exceptional Children Programs, and Otis Smallwood, Director of Technology/Accountability.

Superintendent Smith was found to be in violation of at least three State Statutes by his participation in many of the improper procedures involving travel and credit card expenses.

To avoid these problems in the future, Walker suggested new policies and procedures on travel reimbursements. She noted in her findings that Dr. Nettie Collins-Hart, the new BCPS Superintendent, and the School Board had already begun implementing many of her suggestions.

As far as fines and penalties for any BCPS employee found guilty for violating State Statutes, Lloyd Smith said those cases more than two years old are now null and void due to the statue of limitations on misdemeanor charges. He did say that if any felony fraud was unearthed by the impending SBI probe, there is no statue of limitations.