'Nobody has been minding the store' : News : Oswego Ledger-Sentinel : Hometown Newspaper for Oswego and Montgomery, Illinois
|'Nobody has been minding the store'|
|Audit of county board members' per diem mileage payments released|
|by Matt Schury|
Kendall County State's Attorney Eric Weis said last week the biggest conclusion he drew from an audit of County Board members' per diem and mileage payments is that oversight is required when it comes to board members' per diems.
"Nobody's been minding the store," Weis said.
The complete audit of 11 Kendall County Board members' per diems and mileage reimbursements over a four-year period was released by Weis' office last week.
The roughly 5,100 page document shows everything the auditors reviewed including each of the county board member's submitted meeting vouchers; minutes from meetings; correspondence between the board members and county treasurer and clerk's offices. It also includes other documents as well as the final report and recommendation by the auditor, Dennis E. Czurylo and Associates LLC.
One issue that Weis said he hopes the audit remedies is the issue of board members getting paid before a meeting occurs.
There's evidence in the audit of board members sending emails to county staff members in the treasurer's office where they requested payment for a meeting that, according to the time stamp on the email, had not yet occurred.
Weis also said that if some board members who were on the county's health insurance had not gone to enough meetings and collected enough in per diem payments, they wouldn't have earned enough to equal to the county's share of the premium for the health insurance they receive.
The board did recently make some changes. In May, the board approved requiring members to fill out attendance forms for county board committee meetings and special committee assignments. They also added a mileage log for reimbursement and paperwork for submitting salary vouchers.
Board members are required to submit those documents within 60 days after the meeting is held. The board approved three forms-one that deals with attendance, another for mileage and a new voucher form.
The attendance form stipulates that the committee meeting chairman is responsible for completing the attendance record and keeping track of board members who might be appointed as alternates to fill a quorum.
For special appointments outside the County Board's standing committees, the appointed board member has to complete the attendance record form that asks they provide the names of other participants at the meeting who are affiliated with the county.
The appointee is also asked to provide the name of the organization holding the meeting and the date it took place.
The mileage form asks members to include the date of travel, reason, place of departure, destination and total miles traveled. There is also a place for them to sign at the bottom and total up their hours.
The board approved a new voucher form but did not go as far as the auditor's recommendation, which suggested they approve a list specifying all of the meetings for which they can be reimbursed.
The new voucher includes a list with some board committee meetings and a box the member can check if they attended. It also has blank lines for the board member to write in other meetings they may have attended.
Weis' office digitized vast
audit documents and files
The auditor annotated the large volume of documents as they tried to match up meeting dates with the evidence that was turned over. In some instances they could not find evidence to suggest a board member should have been compensated for a meeting.
Weis' office voluntarily offered the audit to the Record Newspapers, publishers of the Ledger-Sentinel, upon its completion.
He said his office scanned three banker's boxes worth of information and put it on a DVD in PDF format. All board members involved in the audit have been given the information if they wanted it, Weis said. The audit includes the county's calendar of meetings and events as well as a copy of the board's rules of order. It also includes correspondence between the auditor and county staff and elected officials while it took place.
The audit report also gives some background on Dennis Czurylo who started the auditing firm of Czurylo and Associates. It notes that prior to starting his 20 years experience in private practice, Czurylo worked 25 years as a special agent with the IRS' criminal investigation division of the U.S. Treasury Department.
Last month the Per Diem Ad Hoc Committee sent 11 payment request letters to board members asking they pay back a total of $45,997 in improperly collected per diem and mileage payments. The largest single request was $14,572 that the committee and audit said former Board Chairman Anne Vickery owed in mileage and per diem payments she improperly claimed.
County Board members identified in the investigation and audit who received letters last month include Vickery, Bob Davidson, Jessie Hafenrichter, Nancy Martin, Pam Parr and Suzanne Petrella as well as current board members Dan Koukol, former chairman John Purcell, current Chairman John Shaw, Jeff Wehrli and Elizabeth Flowers.
The final report from Czurylo explains that his office analyzed board members' vouchers with payments from the treasurer's office and meeting minutes. The firm created a spreadsheet for each County Board member summarizing the meetings for which they sought per diem payments.
Czurylo's office used payment report forms from the county treasurer's office to reconcile board members vouchers with the payments they ultimately received. The spreadsheet lists "any amounts that were either undetermined, found to be improper or any amount found to be due to the member."
The auditor used a color-coded system of red, green, blue and yellow to categorize per diem payments board members received over the four-year period. Red coded per diem payments meant the board member had improperly collected a payment when they shouldn't have. An example of this in the audit shows in some instances board members billing the county twice for the same meeting on their vouchers.
Per diem payments that Czurylo's office determined were "green" meant the board member properly claimed a payment for attending a meeting.
The report explains that a meeting coded blue meant the auditor couldn't determine if the board member should have been reimbursed for a meeting and a meeting deemed yellow meant the board member was owed money from the county.
Czurylo also gave recommendations, as requested by Weis, some of which the county has begun doing. The auditor says that he would like to see a review of vouchers for compliance with the county's per diem payment rules.
Treasurer Jill Ferko announced earlier this year that her office, along with County Clerk Debbie Gillette, has begun to monitor and reconcile board members' vouchers with meetings that have taken place.
Per Czurylo's recommendation, the board has also approved a standard reimbursement form that lists all approved committees and special authorized appointments for which board members are eligible for payment. The report also concluded that board members should obtain some form of certification of attending a meeting if the organization does not keep minutes.
Some board members spoke out against this recommendation during the May board meeting when they approved the forms.
Wehrli said at the time that he didn't think board members should have to turn in an attendance sheet for meetings outside the standing committees.
"We're trying to make government simpler and to make everybody fill out one of these (attendance forms) every time we go to a meeting and have somebody go over them every time is, to me, an incredible step in the wrong direction," Wehrli told the board.
Purcell said he agreed with Wehrli but he supported the forms even if he said they were a form of "babysitting." He added that he also couldn't figure out the point of a stipulation that the attendance forms turned in by board members for special appointments list at least one other person who attended the meeting.
The audit report requests that board members file a form within a week after the end of the month for which they are seeking a per diem.
Czurylo also recommends that board members sign their own voucher form.
"We noted in our review that the certification was frequently done by treasurer's office employees not the member," the report says.
The report also suggests the county keep all minutes of meetings in one department or office and that board members not be paid before a meeting takes place.
"There should be no prepayment for meetings attendance ... where member failed to file a timely reimbursement form," the report states, and continues, "members should not be allowed to defer payment for meetings attended as this has potential IRS consequences if income is shifted between reporting periods."
Next step to be
determined by the board
What happens next, Weis said, depends on the County Board's Per Diem Ad Hoc Committee or the board itself.
He said it will ultimately be up to the county's per diem ad hoc committee to decide what board members might owe. He said they can decide--if a board member challenges one of the claims in the audit--to accept their explanation and settle for a certain amount based on the board member's explanation or say they want all of it repaid.
Weis explained that the committee could decide to have the entire board approve any settlements that are proposed. However, considering five of the board members currently sitting on the board are included in the audit, he doesn't know how they would be able to vote on their own settlement. Weis added that someone other than himself has to approve the settlement.
"Somebody has to actually finalize the settlement," he said. "If member X comes in and says, 'I agree I owe 10 meetings and the board says we agree with 10 meetings ... once it's settled, it has to be done. There has to be finality to it," Weis said.
He added that said he sees a "Catch 22" in instances where board member's claim they attended a meeting but the auditor couldn't find evidence that the meeting took place. If the meeting took place and there is no evidence that it was posted as a public meeting and no minutes can be found, then the group or committee holding the meeting could be in violation of the Illinois Open Meetings Act, according to Weis
If, however, there is no evidence the meeting happened because it didn't actually happen, then Weis said he doesn't see how a board member could contend they should be paid for said meeting. He estimates about 20 to 30 percent of the violations in the audit deal with instances where the auditor couldn't find evidence of the meeting taking place.
Weis won't say if he intends to file charges against any of the board members but does admit there would be a higher burden of proof if the issue ends up in court.
When asked if there is a criminal investigation Weis said, "I can't confirm that or not. I don't ever comment on whether there is or is not one."
Broadly speaking, he added that when his office investigates something that could potentially result in charges, they usually treat it as if it were criminal until they find evidence to the contrary.
"We have to treat it as criminal to begin with and then de-escalate it down to anything else or close it," Weis said. "Everything is always treated as worst case scenario and then you can always de-escalate it."
The auditor's services concluded in May and the audit is finished. It cost the county about $25,000 to have the audit performed.
"Assuming we don't need them for litigation or other questions or other parts of the audit, there is no work being done by them at this time," Weis said.
He added that his office did some of the work in-house to save county money. He said the bill from the auditor could have easily been two to four times higher if the auditor handled everything.
Weis added that the board members who have requested to review the audit have received copies or they can still do so. His staff has scanned all of the documents digitally into PDF format.
Weis has spoken to all board members except for one and doesn't know if that board member has received her information.
"Everyone else has made contact with our office in some capacity," he said.
They will have all of the information Weis' office has that was alleged in the audit.
"They can look through it and see whether they agree or disagree with the findings and the supporting documentation that goes along with that," he said.
"Frankly, I think they are going to want to wait and see what it is we have, too," Weis said. " I don't blame them or fault them in any way for wanting to see what we have. That's exactly what I would do if I was them."
He explained that he wanted the board members to see the information in the audit first before they start producing their own evidence to Weis and then ultimately the committee.
"There are thousands of pages of this to go through," he said.