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Monday, December 6, 2010

Harold Cogdell Challenges Partisan Jennifer Roberts For Meck. Co. Chair: Its About Time!

Cogdell-Roberts Vote Tonight

Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Commissioners will select their leadership this evening, amid reports of a "back room" deal that could give Republicans more clout than they might have expected.

Commissioners are scheduled to select a chair and vice chair during their meeting, scheduled for 6 p.m. at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center.

Current chair Jennifer Roberts, a Democrat, had been expected by some observers to win re-election to that position, given her top finish in last month's election for three at-large board members. But Roberts said late last week she has learned that fellow Democrat Harold Cogdell might be working with the board's four Republican members on a deal to become chair.

According to that scenario, Cogdell would get the four GOP board members' support, giving him a 5-4 majority in the vote for chair, in return for his supporting Republican Jim Pendergraph as vice chair.

That scenario also might include Cogdell's support of GOP budgeting priorities in the future, some observers have surmised.

Cogdell is the current vice chair.

Pendergraph finished second and Cogdell third in last month's election.

Pendergraph and Cogdell have declined to comment on the report, but Roberts wrote on her Facebook page last week, "Harold Cogdell will come round to realize that now is not the time for a personal power play. It is not time to be divisive and to succumb to personal ambition and back room deal making that does not serve those who elected us."

The board chairman typically is the most visible leader of the majority party and helps set the agenda for county government. Commissioners are expected to face a number of difficult budgeting decisions this year, in the midst of a bad economy.

Roberts said last Thursday that she had met with Democrats, including Cogdell, and they had agreed to support her as chair again.

Historically, commissioners have elected the top vote-getter in the at-large race as chair of the board. The No. 2 vote-getter typically is selected as vice chair. But there have been a number of exceptions to that rule.

Jennifer Roberts Warns Harold Cogdell Of "Implications" If He Tries To Take Her Seat

In a surprise move, Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Commissioner Harold Cogdell is apparently trying to unseat fellow Democrat Jennifer Roberts as board chair by striking a deal with Republicans.

The maneuvering carries implications beyond the chairman title. Roberts sent commissioners an e-mail this week asking them to avoid "back room" negotiations in which they would support board members for a leadership post in exchange for votes on budget spending priorities.

On Friday, Roberts said Cogdell has promised Republicans he would vote to make Republican Jim Pendergraph vice chair if they support his bid for chairman. Democrats hold a 5-4 majority on the panel.

"Harold Cogdell will come round to realize that now is not the time for a personal power play," Roberts said on her Facebook page. "It is not time to be divisive and to succumb to personal ambition and backroom deal making that does not serve those who elected us."

Cogdell declined comment. Pendergraph, Mecklenburg's former sheriff who won his seat in November, also refused to discuss the matter.

"We'll have to see how it plays out," Pendergraph said before declining further comment.

Commissioners will reorganize the board, electing a chair and vice chair, during a meeting at 6 p.m. Monday at the Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St.

The commission chair, typically the most visible leader of the majority party, will help set Mecklenburg's agenda as the county confronts budget deficits and resets property values for the first time since 2003. The position pays $27,962, about $5,000 more than pay for other commissioners.

Cogdell's challenge represents a potential setback for Roberts, who has been board chair for four years. On Thursday, she said she had met recently with the board Democrats and all of them - including Cogdell - pledged to reappoint her. But Roberts said neither Cogdell nor board Republicans have returned phone calls.

She said if Cogdell wins, it would serve as a distraction to commissioners and erode trust with the public, since Roberts was the top vote-getter in the November general election. Cogdell finished third behind Pendergraph.

Historically, Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Commissioners have selected the candidate receiving the most votes as chair and the second-place finisher from the majority party as vice chair.

But a break with tradition is not unprecedented. In 1997, commissioner Hoyle Martin helped oust fellow Democrat Parks Helms as chairman and won the vice chair post for himself. Republican Tom Bush replaced Helms.

Four years ago, Helms said he wanted to serve as board chair, despite Roberts' winning the most votes in the at-large race. Roberts said she met twice with Helms before he withdrew from consideration.

An attorney and former Charlotte city councilman, Cogdell won his seat on the board of commissioners in 2008, and served as board vice chair, even though fellow Democrat Dan Murrey finished with more votes.

On Monday, Roberts sent an e-mail to commissioners saying she would vote for Cogdell to remain vice chair. "We trust and understand each other," Roberts wrote. She also said Pendergraph wants to claim the post.

Her e-mail also warned commissioners against secret deal-making.

"I understand there has been back room conversation about Vice Chair," Roberts wrote. "There may be promises being made but I would encourage everyone to remain flexible on any budget promises, as there is so much we do not know yet about our challenges ahead."

On Friday, Roberts said she was "disappointed" Cogdell would challenge her for the chair position.

"There will be implications he has not considered," she said. "I am hoping he will change his mind."

Harold Codgell & Jennifer Roberts Fight For Chair: No Tax Hikes But Remember DSS Scandal

Sounds like an attempted coup is in the works at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg County board of commissioners. If it happens, Chairman Jennifer Roberts, a Democrat, could lose the gavel.

Roberts, a Democrat, was the top vote-getter in last month's election and thus stands to be chairman. But that's tradition, not law.

Word is that fellow Democrat Harold Cogdell is making his own effort to be chairman.

He would probably need to secure Republican votes to make that happen. Democrats control the board by a 5-4 margin.

Roberts posted this on her Facebook account today:

"The voters of Mecklenburg have indicated their continued support for me as top vote getter. Harold Cogdell will come round to realize that now is not the time for a personal power play."

She added: "It is time for the County Commission to focus on service, and the needs of the community. It is not time to be divisive and to succumb to personal ambition and backroom deal making that does not serve those who elected us."

In an e-mail to the Observer this morning, Roberts said she and Cogdell "trust and understand each other." But she also referred to "budget promises" being made as part of "back room conversation."

Cogdell could not be immediately reached for comment.

One possibility: Cogdell is promising to vote for a revenue-neutral tax rate as part of next year's revaluation, and to make Republican Jim Pendergraph the vice chair. That might win him the four Republican votes which, with his own, would be enough to seize the chairmanship.

It all makes for captivating political intrigue, but also perhaps more than that.

Cogdell and the Republicans could be cutting deals on not raising next year's tax rate. That would contradict Cogdell's campaign pledge not to make promises on the tax rate before he knew how exactly the budget numbers were shaping up.

We're not casting a vote on who should be Chairman, but in this volatile economy, it's not smart to be locking in your budget vote almost seven months before the budget takes effect.

Jennifer Roberts, Part Of The Problem

I think I’m done cutting Roberts any slack on this DSS mess. For her to obstruct and slam the attempts of other commissioners to find out what is going on with county’s massive, $200m. DSS operation is too much.

And for Roberts to suggest that a closed session airing of DSS’s dirty laundry is not her preferred way to go is an insult to the intelligence of all Mecklenburg County taxpayers.

The only reason Commissioner Bill James and the other GOPers are suggesting the closed session route is in response the “disclosure” stonewall County Manager Harry Jones has erected around the investigation — a construction effort aided and abetted by Jennifer Roberts. Fine. Let’s hear DSS chief Mary Wilson answer questions in open session. Super. Next.

It will also be interesting to see if Commissioner George Dunlap’s confirmation that a federal grand jury probe is underway of DSS shakes anything new loose. Why it took a full month for the probe’s existence to be reported remains a mystery, but at least everyone in town has caught up to the story.

However, it would be wrong to assume that the probe will result in any indictments, both as a matter of fairness and institutional inertia. Prosecutors are political animals and will require some slam-dunk, smoking gun type evidence of wrongdoing for them to move on a DSS devoid, until very recently, of adult supervision of its funds.

On the third hand, not all gross mismanagement rises to the level of criminality. This is why the county commission must itself reestablish public trust in one of its largest ongoing budget expenses. Jennifer Roberts needs to help that process or get out of the way.

Democrats Retain Control Of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board Of Commissioners

Democrats kept their majority on the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners, with incumbents Jennifer Roberts and Harold Cogdell among the top three finishers in the at-large race on Tuesday.

With all 195 Mecklenburg precincts reporting, Democrat Jennifer Roberts was first with 112,556 votes, Republican Jim Pendergraph was second with 111,622, and Democrat Harold Cogdell, Jr. was third with 106,596.

Pendergraph, formerly a Democrat, served as the county's sheriff for 13 years.

Should the wins of Roberts and Cogdell hold, Democrats would now hold five seats on the nine-member county board. That's just slightly more narrow that the party's current majority.

"I think that is an amazing performance," said Roberts. "When you think about the national mood, how upset people are about having to trim budgets and just upset with incumbents in general, I think we showed that by actually getting out in front of voters and talking to them ... that local personal touch made the difference."

The three leaders were trailed by Republicans Dan Ramirez and Corey Thompson, incumbent Democrat Dan Murrey and Libertarian Jack Stratton.

The outcome of the at-large race -- and the fate of which party would be in the majority -- wasn't settled until late Tuesday.

Early results showed Republicans Pendergraph and Dan Ramirez taking two of the seats, and shifting power to the GOP for the first time since 2002.

But as the final precincts came in, Cogdell overtook Ramirez for third place in the at-large race.

Democrats have been in the majority on the nine-member county board for much of the past two decades, winning six seats in 2008.

But all of the party's incumbents faced Republican challengers this year.

The new board, which will take office in December, probably will confront many of the same financial challenges as current commissioners. But the new panel will have to deal with residents still reeling from cuts to schools, libraries and parks.

And they'll have to contend with homeowners worried about higher tax bills as the county resets property values for the first time since 2003.

Republicans campaigned on promises to cut spending further to try to lessen the blow of the revaluation.

But Democrats said that while they would continue to look for efficiencies, they were hesitant to commit to some of their opponents pledges to cut taxes.

Former commissioners Tom Cox, a Republican, and Parks Helms, a Democrat, said spending will continue to be a big issue for the new board.

Cox said state lawmakers, in trying to balance their budget, may push additional costs onto the counties. So crafting a "revenue-neutral" budget could require more local cuts.

"I don't know whether a Democrat or Republican majority can stand that heat. At some point in time, you can't cut anymore," said Cox, a commissioner from 1998 to 2004. "And my guess is they're getting pretty close to that right now."

Incumbents lead in district races

Tuesday's ballot also included three contested district races. But incumbents Dumont Clarke, George Dunlap and Vilma Leake enjoyed comfortable leads over their GOP competitors in the early returns.

In District 2, Leake was at 71percent of the vote, compared with about 29 percent for Lee Ann Patton.

Dunlap was leading in the District 3 race with 81percent to 19percent for Barbara Eveland.

In District 4, Clarke was ahead with about 65percent of votes, compared with 35percent for Virginia Spykerman.

The three Republicans on the board - Karen Bentley of District 1, Neil Cooksey of District 5 and Bill James of District 6 - did not have opponents this year.

The DSS Mystery: Where Did Money Go?

Internal e-mails reveal new allegations of misspending at the Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services, raising more unanswered questions about what happened to money intended to help needy children.

Some of the more than 1,000 e-mails the Observer obtained through a public records request provide the most detailed account to date about the agency's accounting fiasco.

E-mails show:

Officials suspected an employee wrote $80,000 in checks to herself from donations.

An administrator questioned why other donations were used to buy $340 diamond earrings, leather coats and a $300 DVD player.

A top executive complained that a senior fiscal administrator frustrated co-workers with her "inability to explain the simplest concepts of revenue and expenses."

After nearly a year, officials have never said who was at fault for $162,000 that disappeared or whether anyone was disciplined.

No one has been charged in an ongoing police investigation and a county report says officials cannot be certain where the money went.

Meanwhile, donors are left to wonder whether their generosity ever helped buy Christmas gifts for those in need.

In one e-mail, a woman describes calling the county in 2007 to give $900 for single mothers at Christmas. The person who answered the phone told her to make a check payable to the worker's sister.

The donor said she grew suspicious and made the check out to the county, but the idea that it may still have been misused is "like a kick in the stomach."

In another e-mail, a founder of Second String Santa said he was concerned whether kids received the more than 50,000 toys his group had donated since 1989.

Will Miller said he believes some of the toys reached children, but he's not sure about the rest.

"Will we ever know? Probably not," he said.

Two commissioners said they have asked county administrators for a full accounting of what went wrong at DSS but have yet to receive answers. County officials have never explained who was responsible, they said.

"To fix it, you have to admit all the stuff that is messed up," Commissioner Bill James said. "They don't want to do too much digging."

County administrators declined interview requests. Instead, a county spokesman released a prepared statement saying appropriate fiscal controls have been installed in response to an outside audit and an internal investigation.

"Our review of the e-mails we provided and your follow up questions did not reveal any new information that would suggest any change in the audit findings or in management's response to those findings," the statement said.

Some commissioners said they have been told that the employees involved have either left county government or been placed in new positions.

Unusual spending patterns

DSS spends $176 million annually and employs 1,200 workers to assist Mecklenburg's poor and neglected. The agency administers everything from food stamps to foster care and child protection services.

Last spring, DSS Director Mary Wilson ordered financial audits following reports of suspicious spending.

Auditors looked at multiple spending programs and financial practices in the agency. They found a $10,000 check made out to an employee, missing and altered receipts and money for kids spent on office supplies.

County leaders responded by suspending the programs, putting DSS finance under direct county control, training workers on accounting procedures and ordering a review of financial procedures in each county agency.

The Observer reviewed e-mails dating from December 2008 to July 2009 for seven current and former county administrators, including Wilson, County Manager Harry Jones, County Finance Director Dena Diorio and Internal Auditor Cornita Spears.

E-mails show county officials noticed unusual spending patterns as early as last December but did not disclose problems to the public until March.

On New Year's Eve, Wilson told staff she had suspended a voucher program the agency used to purchase clothes and other items for clients at local stores. She wrote that officials were worried about a lack of oversight and a spike in spending.

One monthly retail bill leapt from between $5,000 and $6,000 to more than $20,000 in October 2008, the e-mail says. Employees turned in receipts only 30 to 35 percent of the time, she wrote.

At one time or another, workers possessed or had access to numerous credit cards and gift cards, including some to Bath & Body Works, Bass Pro Shops, Macy's, the Cheesecake Factory and Outback Steakhouse.

Outside auditors verified for county administrators that DSS workers possessed county-issued credit cards, including 10 credit cards for Sam's Club, three for Harris Teeter and an online charge account with

In February, county officials asked internal auditors to look into questionable spending, including purchases of diamond earrings, leather coats and a DVD player.

An e-mail to one of the auditors from a human resources consultant said the purchases raise "many questions and concerns."

According to the county's statement, most gifts were typical children's items such as toys, clothes and books. More expensive items such as diamond earrings and leather coats were approved purchases for foster children who reached special milestones like high school graduation, the statement says.

"Receiving a gift of some significant value was viewed as an incentive for other children who were in foster care to set goals and accomplish them," the statement said.

Commissioner Harold Cogdell said he spent part of his early childhood in foster care and believes the gifts are a good idea.

"It makes sense to me to show the kids some love," Cogdell said.

A new accountant

DSS has endured multiple management shakeups in recent years. The latest came when Wilson reorganized the agency after she was hired in July 2008.

She laid out the reasons to hire a new finance director in a February e-mail.

Wilson wrote that the senior fiscal administrator who managed DSS finances failed to provide reports about oversight, alienated staff and lacked the ability to conduct productive discussions with senior county executives. The e-mail does not name the senior fiscal administrator.

DSS later hired accountant Angela Hurlburt to oversee its finances.

James, the commissioner, said he has asked for the names and background information on Hurlburt's predecessors. He wants them to answer questions from the Board of Commissioners' Audit Review Committee, which investigated accounting lapses at DSS.

He said administrators have failed to respond to his requests and complained that officials "keep us in the dark."

Other commissioners disagreed.

Chairman Jennifer Roberts and Commissioner Dumont Clarke said county leaders have already put in place reforms that will protect taxpayer and donor money.

"The highest priority" is implementing new financial controls, Clarke said.

Shifting the finances

Auditors from Cherry, Bekaert & Holland reviewed DSS and found that Mecklenburg officials responded appropriately. The county's Audit Review Committee came to the same conclusion.

But DSS Director Wilson bristled at one of the major reforms.

Leaders put DSS finance under the direct control of the county's main finance department after allegations of misspending surfaced.

In April, Wilson sent an e-mail to County General Manager Michelle Lancaster to complain. Calling the decision "premature" and "shortsighted," Wilson said there are emergencies when DSS workers must write checks immediately, including occasions when the agency takes children in custody who need clothes, toiletries and school supplies.

"I understand the urgency at the time, but there was a reason DSS had check writing capability and I think we threw the baby out with the bathwater instead of fixing the underlying issue, which is documentation and accountability," Wilson wrote.

Donors left with questions

Past supporters of the DSS Christmas charity include Young Lawyers, employees of Wachovia and Bank of America, and Project Joy, the holiday fund drive initiated by Observer columnist Tommy Tomlinson. The Christmas charity, known as the Giving Tree, is now run by the Salvation Army.

The donor who gave $900 e-mailed the county in July after learning about accounting failures from news accounts. She attached a picture of the check copy she made around Christmas in 2007.

She wrote that she did not remember the name of the woman she spoke with on the phone.

The donor said she and her family all pitched in to raise the money so she could assist women like her who had struggled as single mothers.

When she heard there were allegations of misspending in a DSS charity program, "It's like your stomach just drops."

Federal Grand Jury Investigating Charlotte-Mecklenburg County DSS

A grand jury is investigating the Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services, which has faced scrutiny over accounting practices and spending since early this year, two county commissioners said Monday.

Commissioner George Dunlap said the grand jury has been looking into whether crimes were committed by employees.

Commissioner Bill James said board members were told last month that a federal grand jury is investigating. He refused further comment on the topic, saying commissioners were instructed by a county attorney not to discuss specifics.

The county ordered an audit of the Giving Tree after a DSS employee raised questions about spending at the Christmas charity for needy children. The county discovered checks written out to a county employee who volunteered with the program, as well as money issued to the sister of another employee.

County spokesman Danny Diehl said officials cannot confirm whether a federal grand jury is involved, but said the county "is cooperating with law enforcement to complete the investigation."

The county has asked Charlotte-Mecklenburg police to investigate. A police spokesperson on Monday said their work is ongoing.

Other commissioners reached Monday would not comment on work by authorities. "I want the investigation to have the best possible outcome, said board Chair Jennifer Roberts. "So I am unable to discuss it in the interest of not impeding the work of law enforcement."

In the meantime, James and fellow Republican commissioners Karen Bentley and Neil Cooksey want the county board to meet next week to learn more about ongoing probes.

"There are facts we don't have," James said. "I am just concerned there is stuff even senior management doesn't know."

Diehl said the county will respond to any questions the board has about the DSS audits. "The board has received reports and been briefed on all aspects of the DSS audits that are available to the county manager and staff."

The developments follow Observer stories on Sunday detailing a 74-page memo from a former county employee who headed the Giving Tree. Cindy Brady, who retired from the county in August, wrote she was never given a chance to talk at length about how the charity worked, despite requests to do so.

Brady said the county advanced her as much as $198,000 since 2005 with the approval of her supervisors. Brady said she spent the money on gifts for needy children, but says she did not collect all of her receipts, and some were handwritten or lost.

County leaders say they can account for how about $162,000 was spent by the Giving Tree last year.

But audit reports acknowledge numerous problems with receipts and other documents to track expenses and cited inadequate oversight and controls of the program by management.

The county has announced a number of changes in response to the charity audit and reviews of other DSS spending, including putting department finances under control of the county finance office and re-training DSS employees in financial practices and procedures.

The agency employs about 1,200, with a current annual budget of $176 million.

Brady's memo, dated July 29 and sent to a human resources manager, criticized county investigators for not interviewing her during the audit investigation. The county's former Internal Audit Director Cornita Spears said she first read the memo last month, and it led her to revise her earlier report to include about $33,000 Brady said she returned to the county earlier this year.

County Manager Harry Jones suspended Spears last month over the error.

Why James wants meeting

James cited the Observer story in explaining his reasons for calling the new discussions on DSS. He said he wants to give disgruntled employees a venue to air grievances. For months, James said, commissioners have been deluged with anonymous complaint letters from people who only identify themselves as current and former agency workers.

Some apparently won't divulge their names because they fear retaliation from superiors, James said.

The proposal requests that the board discuss the DSS issues on Dec. 17, with portions of the meeting to be held behind closed doors. It asks that DSS Director Mary Wilson appear to the meeting, and that other department employees be made available.

It also requests that former Giving Tree employees be invited to talk, including former county general manager Janice Allen Jackson, who briefly led DSS on an interim basis until Wilson was hired last year.

Neither Jackson nor Brady could be reached for comment Monday.

The proposal also wants Jones to provide in open session a detailed list of gifts bought with Giving Tree money and information on all items from the charity now in county inventory.

It also asks for copies of all internal memos produced by internal audit and county management involving the Giving Tree.

The county publicly released a three-page report in June and a follow-up report last month. The Observer has requested a longer report by Spears multiple times since July, but the county has said personnel laws bar them from releasing the document.

In order to hold the Dec. 17 meeting, at least five commissioners would have to agree. At least two of the six Democrats would have to sign on.

Roberts, Dunlap and Vilma Leake said they want to hear more about what the commissioners are trying to accomplish in holding the meeting before they can decide whether to support it. However, Roberts questioned whether meeting in closed session was the best approach, and said she is "distressed" that the board Republicans did not talk to her before putting the item on next week's agenda.

Dumont Clarke said he's inclined "to be as transparent and public as possible about this issue and do as little as possible behind closed doors."

Commissioners Harold Cogdell and Dan Murrey did not respond to requests for comments.

Cooksey said his constituents are demanding the board take a "more active role in getting to the bottom of this."

Cooksey disagreed with commissioners who have said they county is spending too much time on the issue and should not look into anonymous complaints.

"When you have issues swirling around, you can't ignore it," Cooksey said. "We have an obligation to see if these allegations have any truth to them or not."

Memo: Money Flowed, No Questions Asked

A former Department of Social Services employee at the center of a charity probe says the county advanced her as much as $198,000 since 2005 with the approval of her supervisors.

The county checks, which she deposited in her personal bank account, were meant to provide gifts for needy children, according to an internal memo the Observer obtained. The 74-page document was written by Cindy Brady, the former DSS employee who ran the Giving Tree charity.

The document paints the defunct charity in more detail than the county has released publicly. It also raises new questions about the investigation, which the county has turned over to police.

The county has never publicly identified Brady or released the full internal audit of the Giving Tree, which the county maintains are both prohibited under personnel law.

The county also has said that all expenditures were accounted for - a fact that the former internal audit director now disputes. Cornita Spears, who was disciplined for a flawed review of the Giving Tree, says the county can't be sure of how $108,000 of $162,000 was spent in 2008.

Brady said the investigation has focused on her spending, which she defended as appropriate. But she acknowledged she fell behind in collecting receipts last year, and some were handwritten, damaged or lost.

Her memo and statements from current and former employees describe a popular Christmas charity that operated for years without accepted standards or accountability. The county has said DSS has not been audited comprehensively since 1996.

The memo, dated July 29, was sent to a county human resources manager, but it's unclear who read it and when.

County spokesman Danny Diehl would not say if County Manager Harry Jones has read it, citing personnel law. Three county commissioners listed as recipients said they have not seen it.

Former Internal Audit Director Spears said she first received the document in November, five months after she released her audit of the program.

Spears said Brady's memo had enough evidence to cause her to revise her June report, and she now says she wishes she had seen it earlier. Spears said personnel rules prevented her from interviewing Brady. Brady wrote in the memo that she wanted to talk but was "given no opportunity for input or clarification."

She said in her memo that some receipts were either lost in a rainstorm or shredded by her dog. Original receipts also remain missing, including some for more than $2,200 spent for the charity at an Old Navy store, the document says.

The county has asked the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police to investigate the Giving Tree and help retrieve receipts from vendors.

Contacted by the Observer, current and former DSS administrators named in the memo supported Brady's description of how the program operated, though one former director said fiscal controls were appropriate under his watch.

Brady's attorney has said Brady is cooperating with a police investigation. Brady, a 20-year county social worker who retired in August, declined to comment for this story.

Suspicious spending

Organizers launched the Giving Tree nearly two decades ago to provide toys, clothing and other gifts to foster children.

The program relied on donations of money and gifts. Past supporters include Second String Santa, Young Lawyers, employees of Wachovia and Bank of America and Project Joy, a fundraiser set up by Observer columnist Tommy Tomlinson. Brady said financial contributions began to grow after Tomlinson became involved.

Officials collected more than 8,400 gifts last Christmas.

But Department of Social Services Director Mary Wilson got a tip earlier this year about suspicious spending and ordered financial audits of the Giving Tree and other programs. Wilson declined to comment through a spokesperson.

E-mails previously obtained by the Observer have shown officials suspected an employee received $80,000 in checks from Giving Tree donations.

Officials also investigated whether an employee's sister got money to buy gifts. Questions were also raised over purchases of diamond earrings, leather coats and a DVD player.

Auditors found numerous accounting failures across the department. County officials suspended some programs and put the agency's finances under direct county control. Officials retrained workers on accounting rules, including the use of restricted purchasing cards.

More oversight

County records show the Department of Social Services wrote checks to Brady totaling more than $176,000 during a three-year period that ended in June 2009. Brady's memo reflects that about $126,000 was for the Christmas program last year, but the county records didn't say how much of the remaining money was for the charity.

The agency also gave another woman about $8,000, records show. Brady's memo identifies her as the sister of an administrator who helped oversee the Giving Tree.

The administrator's sister used her employee discount at Belk Department Store in Brevard, in Western North Carolina, to purchase gifts for the charity, according to the memo and an accompanying letter from the store's manager.

The woman could not be reached for comment.

Jones said officials have strengthened supervisory oversight and clarified employee rules, responsibilities and requirements.

Ward Simmons is a citizen member of the county commission's Audit Review Committee, which investigated accounting failures in DSS. He said that regardless of whether the county explicitly spells out procedures for handling donations, employees have a responsibility to remain diligent in bookkeeping.

"There exist certain standards of prudent behavior that any employee who handles money should adhere to," Simmons said. "If someone else is not using good judgment it's not a license for a second person to do the same."

Lost, damaged receipts

Brady's report contains photocopies of checks she returned to the county, pictures of torn store receipts, a detailed accounting of more than 40 transactions, and her positive performance evaluations.

Her memo says 10 bags of clothing were purchased at an Old Navy store for $2,222. The clothes were put in a room with donated toys, but the original receipts are lost, she said.

Brady wrote that receipts were lost or damaged on hundreds of dollars worth of items from Belk, Coldwater Creek, Target and Kohl's.

Brady also wrote that for years workers did not inventory donated items individually. Storage rooms contained jewelry, music players, a home theater system and toys. She defended purchasing expensive items, saying some children overcame obstacles to graduate from high school, college or find a job.

Brady said she asked the county in February to do an inventory of the items stored at Walton Plaza, a government building on the edge of uptown.

But she said she received a phone call days later from another social worker who told her a county auditor looked at a room of clothing and said she wasn't going to inventory the items because there was "too much stuff," the memo states.

Diehl said items bought with Giving Tree donations are secure and DSS staff conducted an inventory after the audit.

Brady said after a February meeting where she was first questioned about Giving Tree spending, she was told to bring in receipts showing how money advanced to her was spent.

In the following weeks, she said she kept updating the information, and returned $33,000 in money that she hadn't spent.

Internal audit

Spears, the former internal audit director, recently said her June report on the Giving Tree failed to account for money returned by Brady. Spears was suspended last month after acknowledging the error. At the time, Jones said the auditor failed to consider information that had been available before the June report.

Spears said she discovered the oversight after receiving the Brady memo on Nov. 11 from someone in the county manager's office who asked her to review it.

There are "inconsistencies" between the information used to conduct the audit and statements contained in Brady's memo, Spears said.

One example, she said, involves an $11,000 check Brady wrote to the county. Spears said in an interview she was informed that the check was for repayment of personal purchases.

But Brady's memo states that $10,000 of the amount was unspent money from the program, Spears said.

She said she performed a thorough investigation, given the circumstances. It would have been helpful, Spears said, to interview Brady for "clarification" on some issues.

Brady said she was placed on nondisciplinary suspension in February. On March 9, she was placed on medical leave and remained on leave until she retired.

Diehl, the county spokesman, said the county typically tries to contact workers involved in internal audits or human resources investigations.

But he said exceptions may be granted in some cases, such as if an employee is on leave. "Requiring an employee on leave to participate in work-related functions, including investigation interviews, would constitute a county violation of the employee's leave status," Diehl wrote in the county statement.

In recent weeks, Jones and some county commissioners have said the Giving Tree investigation has been handled appropriately.

County commission chairman Jennifer Roberts said she is confident in Jones' assessment that the county knows how last year's donations were spent. She said the county has receipts, possession of items purchased, and returned checks.

But Roberts acknowledged that some receipts may have been altered and have missing dates and store names.

Commissioner Bill James said statements in Spears' audit report about the poor condition of receipts or other documentation makes it inaccurate to say the county has accounted for all of the expenditures. "The central question I have asked since this started was how much of the $162,000 made it to the children or needy," James said. "That question hasn't been answered."

Asked about questions that the county can account for all of last year's donations, Spears said: "From an auditing standpoint, it's not accounted for. You have to have reliable documentation."


The Observer sought comment from the roughly two dozen current and former DSS employees named in the memo. Most declined to comment or could not be reached.

Five corroborated Brady's account. None said they witnessed any wrongdoing in the program.

Polly Needham, a former DSS administrator who helped oversee the Giving Tree, said she anticipates that police will interview her. In her eight years with the program, Needham said DSS finance administrators always approved how Brady and others handled donations.

"Cindy is an honest person," Needham said. "We tried to follow the rules."

Robert McCarter, a former DSS attorney and volunteer for the Christmas charity, said he believes DSS is trying to cover up how little oversight the agency provided the program.

"There was no accounting," McCarter said. "This is the county finding a scapegoat and it is Cindy."

Darryl German, an administrative assistant for DSS who volunteered with the Giving Tree program for five years, said Brady still has broad support in the agency and many people are angry over her departure.

"I have never seen anything at all" that would be considered inappropriate, German said. "It's all been blown out of proportion."

For years, he said the program operated without any complaints about how donations and money were handled. German said it was "common" for employees to receive advance money to purchase items for clients and then submit receipts.

The county no longer runs the program, which has been taken over by the Salvation Army, but he said residents still call to inquire about donating items.

Donald Bynum, who led the Giving Tree program in the early 1990s, said he is sure Brady handled donations appropriately, but disagreed with her description of lax accounting.

In 1992, members of Second String Santa, a nonprofit that holds an annual fundraiser benefiting the program, questioned how donations were handled and feared they did not reach foster children, Bynum said. The group threatened to stop giving donations to the program, he said.

Bynum said he responded by implementing a new inventory system and making sure gifts were placed in a secure area. Organizers then compiled a report each year to show Second String Santa how donations were used, he said.

"I was proud of how we handled the program," Bynum said.

Brady wrote that she was also proud of her work. She cited a passage from a performance evaluation that said "she is an excellent ambassador for the agency."

"My job was to do what I could to get the most we could for our children with the money we had to spend," Brady wrote. "It was someone else's job to monitor the financial end of the process."

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