State Auditor joins probe

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 18, 2007

WINDSOR – The financial probe into alleged misuse of county credit cards issued to the Bertie Board of Education and Central Office staff has taken another turn.

On Tuesday, Bertie County Sheriff Greg Atkins made a formal request to the North Carolina Office of the State Auditor to look at the alleged improprieties.

“The Office of the State Auditor has agreed to review the documents in order to further help the ongoing SBI investigation,” Atkins said.

The issue of questionable credit card practices within Bertie County Public Schools entered the public’s eye in the spring of 2005. The school system was then under the direction of Superintendent John Smith Sr.

Pouring over pages of documents provided by Bertie County Schools, the Bertie County Board of Commissioners forwarded the paperwork, a collection of credit card statements over a two-year period, to Sheriff Atkins in October of 2005. At that time the commissioners confirmed they were not making any allegations, only raising issue to questionable credit card use. They stated it was in the hands of law enforcement officials to make the determination of any criminal wrongdoing.

Initially, the SBI sent an agent to Windsor to study the documentation, but due to the sheer volume of the paperwork, neither the SBI agent nor the Bertie Sheriff’s Office was able to commit the time and resources to undertake a project of this magnitude. The documents were sent to the SBI’s Financial Crimes Unit for investigation.

By mid-2006, additional documentation was generated through 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 in late June of last year.

Windsor attorney Lloyd Smith, who serves as legal counsel for the Bertie Commissioners, said the audit revealed many instances where state statutes were violated. Smith recommended that documentation needed to be forwarded to the SBI as well.

The audit was performed over a time frame of July 1, 2003 through June 30, 2005. It revealed numerous instances where receipts for expenses (meals, travel, lodging, miscellaneous purchases, etc.) were not submitted by school 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.

Meanwhile, the audit showed that 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. 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).

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.

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.

There were 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.