By AUTUMN HUGHES
Despite questioning auditors with the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury and rephrasing their questions in several ways, some members of the Bradley County Commission’s Audit Committee didn’t seem to be convinced when more findings weren’t announced related to the Fiscal Year 2017 audit report. Those committee members wanted to go beyond that report to concerns regarding items apparently not covered to their satisfaction.
Despite questioning auditors with the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury and rephrasing their questions in several ways, some members of the Bradley County Commission’s Audit Committee didn’t seem to be convinced when more findings weren’t announced related to the fiscal year 2017 audit report.
Those committee members, in a session earlier this week, wanted to go beyond that report to concerns regarding items apparently not covered to their satisfaction.
Steve Reeder, Mid-East Tennessee regional director of audits for the Tennessee Comptroller's Office, and some of his staff met Monday with the Audit Committee. At several points during the meeting, committee members and others present asked about allegations previously made against Sheriff Eric Watson and the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office concerning improper financial activities.
In a December 2017 statement from John Dunn, spokesperson for the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office, to the Cleveland Daily Banner, he acknowledged the office was asked to look into “specific allegations related to the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office” during the current audit. That process was finalized in September when it was agreed by a special Bradley County Commission ad hoc committee — which was looking into the possibility of hiring a forensic auditor — and state auditors that the state would begin its normal procedures for its yearly audit.
Any additional concerns would be passed along to the auditors through Bradley County Attorney Crystal Freiberg and would be given added attention by the state auditors, Dunn said in December.
In a telephone interview Wednesday afternoon, Freiberg said as far as she is aware, the audit is complete.
“There was no written report that I received in any way. I did receive a telephone call from (the Comptroller’s Office) … at the end of their investigation,” she said, adding she was told the auditors were finished with the additional audit “and that their findings would be in the audit report.”
Audit Committee Chairman Dan Rawls said Monday he is disappointed because he believes the BCSO had problems in the 2015-16 fiscal year, including $180,000 unpaid to a food company.
"That is a glaring breach, I believe," Rawls said, adding he is "amazed" there is no finding when a "department thinks it's OK to stop paying the bill because they believe there is a discrepancy in the billing."
Rawls added he is not satisfied all the money not paid to the food company has been found, and it appears the BCSO was able "to get away" with something, because "none of that was dealt with" in the audit.
"The taxpayers of Bradley County have no answers and that is what we wanted to have addressed," Rawls said.
However, in Dunn’s December comments, he stated “if we found evidence of improper activity, we would have developed audit findings on the Sheriff’s Office and presented them in this report. … We reviewed each of the allegations and found many of them to be baseless or incorrect. Based on the records we reviewed, and county employees we interviewed, no evidence came to our attention to indicate the allegations were valid.”
Reeder said Monday that just because there is no finding in the audit doesn't mean the Comptroller's Office didn't look into allegations.
"If you have any questions about the public report, that's what we're here today to discuss," Reeder said.
Rawls said he also wanted to talk more about petty cash, but Reeder said he preferred to talk about that after the committee meeting.
Committee member Thom Crye also said he had questions not answered in the audit’s public report.
County Commission Chairman Louie Alford asked if there is anything different in the audit this year than in previous years, and if the auditors took time to "dig deeper."
"You know our concerns," Alford said.
Reeder said the auditors met with the commissioners and "looked at everything you gave us."
Crye asked if that included the drug fund. Reeder said it did.
Alford asked if some findings may come at a later date.
"Our audit of Bradley County is finished," Reeder said. "I know exactly what you're asking me, I'm just trying to figure out how to answer you to your satisfaction."
During Monday’s meeting, Audit Committee member Milan Blake referred to a special meeting with auditors related to the BCSO, noting it took 200 extra hours of work for the auditors "to do what we asked you to do." He also noted the audit cost went from 30 cents to 36 cents per county resident.
"Did we incur additional fees because of the 200 hours?" Blake asked.
Reeder said there was no additional cost because of the increased hours spent on the audit.
Alford asked if the auditors find something illegal in any department, do they take it to Tennessee Bureau of Investigation or does the Comptroller's Office investigate. Reeder said both happen.
"We reported back to the county attorney what you're asking me about," Reeder said.
Crye acknowledged some of the allegations they were alluding to dated back to 2014.
"There's a lot of people who think things went haywire," Crye said.
After a few more incidents of Reeder saying he would be glad to answer questions following the committee’s review of the public audit report, Rawls asked if anyone had more questions about the report. Rawls then stated a move to go “off the record” for discussion with the auditors.
Lorri Moultrie, executive administrative assistant to the Bradley County Commission, confirmed Wednesday that although there was no formal vote to adjourn the meeting, when the statement was made to go “off the record” and discuss issues beyond the audit report, that signaled to her the end of the committee meeting and conclusion of her duties to record it.
A Cleveland Daily Banner staff writer remained for the additional discussion, which focused on areas of concern already mentioned in the committee meeting: Among them, allegations of wrongdoing at the Sheriff’s Office and concerns about petty cash.
In a December statement to the Banner, Watson said he was pleased with the outcome of the audit.
“I did not believe that the allegations which were submitted would be found to have any merit,” Watson said, noting this represents the fourth consecutive audit of the BCSO without any findings.
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