Per diem investigation findings outlined for committee : News : Oswego Ledger-Sentinel : Hometown Newspaper for Oswego and Montgomery, Illinois
|Per diem investigation findings outlined for committee|
|Weis: all 11 Kendall officials in probe had violations |
|by Matt Schury|
That's one of the more puzzling reasons a Kendall County Board member claimed an $84 per diem for attending a meeting, according to the recent findings of a forensic audit looking into how board members were compensated.
County State's Attorney Eric Weis spoke to the County Board's Per Diem Ad Hoc Committee for about an hour Thursday regarding the findings of a forensic audit of per diems paid to 11 county board members that has taken almost two years to complete.
Per diems are payments made to county board members for each meeting they attend. Board members are not supposed to claim more than one per diem in a single day.
While Weis didn't get into the specifics of which board members owed money and how much they might have to pay back to the county, he did give the five member panel an idea of what types of violations of current county policy had been occurring.
Weis broke the potential issues up into those he saw as straightforward violations that he suggested the committee pursue restitution for, which he dubbed as "red" and those that were a little more ambiguous that he dubbed "yellow."
Weis said that all 11 of the board members mentioned in the audit and under investigation had a violation that fell into the red category.
Current Kendall County Board members under investigation include Chairman John Shaw, John Purcell, Dan Koukol, Elizabeth Flowers and Jeff Wehrli. Former board members included in the audit and investigation include Anne Vickery, Nancy Martin, Bob Davidson, Suzanne Petrella, Pam Parr and Jessie Hafenritcher.
The "round planning" meeting mentioned by Weis was in his yellow category. The remark was written on a voucher that a board member turned in to Treasurer Jill Ferko's office sometime between 2008 and 2012, the time frame for which the auditing firm reviewed per diem payments.
"These were the actual words used-'round planning'" Weis told the board toward the end of presentation to the committee.
"You tell me what meeting that goes to because I have no idea," Weis said. "Round-R-O-U-N-D planning-I have no clue."
He added that he gives Ferko a lot of credit for deciphering written per diem requests that can at times be cryptic.
"I had to try to read these documents and I had a very hard time discerning some of the language that's in there," Weis said. "That's an example, I don't know what to do with that meeting. Going forward-create a form that has got the actual meetings on it, it may make it a little simpler."
to seek reimbursement
After hearing from Weis, the committee decided it would like the county to seek reimbursement. During their next committee meeting, Tuesday, Feb. 25, they will be deciding which of the potential violations Weis presented they would like payment for.
Board member Matthew Prochaska said he would like to go through all of the issues "one by one just to make everything nice and neat."
Amy Cesich, chairman of the ad hoc committee, said they are taking their task very seriously.
"I think we are put in a very precarious situation here, "Cesich said. "We do represent the taxpayers of this county ... I think we need to be fair and the process needs to be fair and not just ... say, 'We want this to be redeemed."
Board member Scott Gryder added that they also need to focus on making good policy going forward so that board members will know in the future what is clearly reimbursable.
"Eric (Weis) has some good suggestions here this evening and I know some of us have already talked about different ways to make things better," Gryder said. "As Eric mentioned even on the red lights all 11 of them (board members) had some kind of issue, which to me says it wasn't clear."
Cullick pointed out that the original reason the committee was formed was to make the policy more clear about what board members can claim compensation for.
"I'd really like to get past this and begin our work on straightening out this process for those reporting mechanisms," Cullick said, adding that the county has 24 subcommittees and eight are required by statute.
Advanced payments issued
Not all the violations Weis presented were ambiguous. Some per diems that were collected clearly needed to be paid back, he told the committee.
For instance Weis said one situation in the red category involved board members taking two per diem payments for the same meeting. Weis said double billing the county is something that is in clear violation of the county's policy.
"There are occasions where a member has submitted a voucher for reimbursement for one month, and has submitted that same voucher at a separate time either the next month or several months later," he said. "If the county was double billed they should be reimbursed for that second meeting."
Another potential clear violation involved per diems that were claimed when there was no evidence that the meeting existed. In this case, Weis said, a voucher may have been turned in for a per diem but there are no meeting minutes or agenda that shows the meeting took place. Weis added, that the meeting was canceled but a payment was submitted anyway.
In some cases Weis said members submitted vouchers prior to a meeting occurring and if the meeting was then canceled the money was still paid.
"Advance payment of meetings-I've never heard of something like that. But I think that's pretty clear, if you're submitting a voucher for something you haven't gone to yet ... it should not happen."
Meeting held in open
A few audience members including staff and elected officials attended the committee meeting. Treasurer Ferko was in attendance as was County Clerk Debbie Gillette.
Board members Elizabeth Flowers and John Purcell were among the officials in attendance. Purcell sat in the back of the county board room and did not speak during the meeting.
Martin attended the meeting and spoke extensively about the investigation (See related article).
Last month, the County Board voted to allow the committee to make a decision about which per diem payments to pursue potential litigation to act on.
The committee decided to hold the discussions in open session but Weis told them they could, under provisions of the Illinois Open Meetings Act, hold the meeting behind closed doors in executive session.
The Open Meetings Act allows public bodies to hold discussion in private to discuss pending litigation. In choosing not to do this Weis made it clear to the committee that they would be waiving their attorney/client privileges, something he normally doesn't recommend. However, Weis said he understood the public nature of the case and would respect the committee's decision to hold an open meeting discussion.
Flowers had a question when Weis told the committee they would have to give up their attorney/client privilege. As Flowers does not sit on the committee, Weis said that it would not affect her.
Weis said that it was Todd Milliron, a resident of Kendall County, and Vickery who first filed complaints with his office that led to the investigation and forensic audit.
Weis said the audit review has been "substantially completed." He noted that the per diems are not part of the annual financial audit the county does each year.
No double check
Another potential violation found in the forensic audit has to do with the county board chairman claiming a per diem for attending committee meetings.
The board's rules of order say that the chairman of the county board cannot be paid a per diem for attending committee meetings because the chairman is paid an annual salary. Weis said that the audit shows that some past county board chairmen violated that policy.
Another clear violation, Weis said, involved members claiming per diems for attending meetings as alternates, when they were not on the committee and not needed to make a quorum to hold the meeting.
A member is entitled to attend any meeting but the question is if they are entitled to compensation, Weis said. Based on the county's rules of order they are not allowed to claim payment unless they are requested by the chairman of the committee to attend to make a needed quorum.
The audit also discovered that there were payments made without vouchers submitted or, if a voucher was submitted, the member didn't sign it. Weis said those instances "were pretty rare" but happened when a member used email to submit vouchers. The committee will have to decide if the board members sought reimbursement in the manner that was approved by the county board at the time, Weis asked.
Weis added that the rules and policies would have to have been in place when the issue occurred for it to be a potential violation. There were some changes made to the rules of order between 2008 and 2012.
"Anything that is in violation of either the policy or state statute is pretty simple and pretty clear that we would seek reimbursement from those county board members," Weis said.
Another issue dealt with members filing vouchers for meetings where they are not noted in the meeting minutes as having attended.
"That one has been the subject of some discussion," he said, adding that a roll call is taken at most of the meetings but they might show up late or not be acknowledged as having attended.
"The same people that review those minutes are the same ones who approve those minutes at a subsequent meeting," Weis said.
He added that there really isn't any check and balance outside the county board; the issue of attendance is on the honor system.
"There is no double check or verification. Whatever was submitted was paid," Weis said. "And I'll tell you, it's not Jill's responsibility to check everyone's work."
Another issue in the audit dealt with when a chairman or the board authorizes members to go to meetings. The chairman can allow county board members to attend specific functions. Weis said they have no written evidence of that authorization occurring in any instance. He said it has to appear in the minutes or something in the agenda that shows a board member was asked to go to a meeting.
Another murky issue involves when board members are appointed to legitimate agencies outside of the county. Some appointments are required under state statute and others are outlined in the policy. He said verification of attendance is not clear.
Weis explained that not all of the agencies they have a county board representative are governmental agencies that are required to operate under the Open Meetings Act or even keep minutes or attendance records.
'Not all clear cut'
The committee will have to make a decision on each one of the issues Weis brought up to the committee. He added that while the committee shouldn't rush their decision, the statute of limitations has begun to run out on some of alleged violations that occurred in 2012. Weis recommended the committee not wait six months to make a decision.
"As you will see as we go through this, it is not all clear cut. It is not all easy as simply looking at the meeting itself and determining whether or not this person should be paid," Weis said. "I think it has been good for everyone, taxpayers included, to do this."
Getting to the meeting also came under scrutiny as Weis found inconsistencies with the way per diems are claimed.
The current rules of order have different rules for per diem reimbursement and mileage reimbursement. In that policy, per diems can be claimed to cover a meeting of the county board or committee meetings and nothing else is mentioned. Mileage, on the other hand, can be claimed for a host of things, including attending seminars, committee meetings and out of county travel.
"Per diem rules of order limit it to specific meetings. Your mileage reimbursement is much more encompassing," Weis said. "You have a discrepancy between the two of them."
If a board member submitted mileage and a per diem voucher for a meeting and it is found they shouldn't have gotten the per diem, then Weis said the county should ask for the mileage back as well. However, under old board policy there were instances where collecting mileage would have been allowed even if getting a per diem payment wasn't allowed.
"Because for almost every case of a meeting, there is a mileage reimbursement," he said. "For every $85 per diem we are going to collect, there is a mileage reimbursement that goes along with that."
The committee will have to decide if the board member is not entitled to the meeting whether they should be entitled to the mileage reimbursement. Weis recommended they revisit the way mileage is reimbursed. A couple years ago a previous County Board discussed the issue but decided not to make any changes.
Weis said it wasn't clear where mileage locations should start. If a county board member has an appointment in Chicago and then comes to a county meeting, from where should the mileage be charged? Weis said the committee needs to figure out if in that instance a board member can collect mileage reimbursement for traveling from Chicago to Yorkville.
"There is a lot of work going forward for this committee, regardless of this audit," Weis said.
Another scenario involved the board sending a member to another meeting of a local government. For instance he asked if a board member is authorized by the board to attend an Oswego Village Board meeting, should that then be a reimbursable meeting? Under old board rules the chairman could authorize this but it was always documented and done at the board level.
"The documentation as it relates to that becomes the issue," he said, adding that the intent to receive a per diem is also not known.
"'Sure you can go.' But is that, 'Sure you can go and you're going to get paid?'" Weis stated. "But are you going to go as a representative and be compensated and (submit) mileage."
Weis advised the committee they also have to more clearly define what a meeting is because they found in the audit that some board members had a loose definition. He said he found instances where board members might have an informal one-on-one meeting with another official or staff member that was submitted for reimbursement.
The audit found evidence that board members were reimbursed for attending training and open houses, events at the county level that are not specifically considered meetings.
"Is it a meeting and is it reimbursable?" he said.
Board members collected per diems for attending union negotiations and grievances, Weis said the audit found. Board members are required to attend the meetings but are not open to the public and there wasn't always a record of attendance kept by the county in the past.
Weis said some board members claimed a per diem for interviewing applicants for employment.
"If you go to a training on the Open Meetings Act ... not put on by our county, is that reimbursable?" Weis said, adding that they need to figure out how to document when the board member attended the meeting.
"A lot of it's trust," he said.
Weis went over another scenario where a board member was supposed to fill out the purpose of the meeting but just states a location.
"I went to X, Y, Z. It doesn't say why. They just went," Weis said. "We paid for that. If we could figure it out, it doesn't come into this audit," he said. "We're not splitting hairs."
At their next meeting the committee will decide which specific issues they would like the county to be reimbursed for. Weis will then send a demand later to the board members whose violations fall into those categories.
From there the board members can pay back what the committee feels is owed. Board members will have a chance to make their case if they have evidence that shows they didn't violate anything. If the board members pay what the committee feels they owe, the case is closed.
If they don't pay the reimbursement, then a civil suit may be brought against them, Weis said.
"Obviously my hope is that it never gets that far," Weis. "But I don't know what people will do but I'm sure there will be questions about what's contained in it. I'm hoping that everyone just pays it and it's a lesson learned and we move on."
Weis explained that he needs the committee to go through each issue and decide what they want paid back. He suggests the ones he labeled as red be reimbursed but admits the ones he dubbed yellow are a little more unclear and it would be up to the committee to decide.
Once the committee decides, Weis said his office would tally up which members owe what and begin sending out letters demanding the money be paid back.
If a member disagrees with the issues they will be appealing to Weis either on their own or with an attorney. Weis will then bring that back to the committee for a decision as to if they should file a lawsuit to get the money back.