FRANKFORT, Ky. (KT) -- State Auditor Mike Harmon has announced that a special examination of nine county attorney offices has turned up findings in three of them, including a six-figure bonus to a spouse, that are being turned over to state and federal law enforcement and other authorities.
Harmon says his special examination was spurred by findings from an examination last year of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services Child Support Enforcement, or CSE, program. “We found numerous issues related to poor oversight and lack of controls over taxpayers’ funds and little guidance and review from the state level.”
They conducted an initial survey of 16 county attorneys across the state, and nine offices were chosen for further scrutiny based on survey results, concerns that had been received by the auditor’s office and issues identified during the CSE examination. Those were in Boyd, Breathitt, Christian, Clark, Gallatin, Knox, Lawrence, Pike and Todd counties.
The examinations covered the period between July 1, 2017 and June 30, 2019 and was released by Harmon’s office on Thursday.
Harmon says current state law provides minimal guidance and oversight of the state’s 120 county attorneys, or any requirement for an annual audit like other county offices, and hopes to rectify that situation.
“My office will ask the Kentucky General Assembly to pass legislation to clarify the use of money received by county attorneys to pay office operating expenses,” he said, “and ask that county attorneys be required to be audited annually under the same requirements as county fiscal courts, clerks and sheriffs. It just makes sense.”
Among the findings of the special examination:
Auditors found over $16,000 had been paid to a former CSE office supervisor in fiscal year 2018. They also found questionable activity by the former supervisor, including falsified expense reimbursement requests, altered supporting documents for expenditures and excess income and unearned benefits paid to the former CSE office supervisor.
This was uncovered after auditors requested bank records related to the Boyd County Child Support program. At that time, the Boyd County attorney informed the auditors that the former CSE office supervisor had returned the bank records and acknowledged she had taken money from the child support office. Kentucky State Police conducted an investigation, which led to the former CSE office supervisor being indicted on 77 charges last fall, alleging the supervisor took over $113,000 over a seven-year period.
In addition, to the KSP referral, Harmon’s office will also refer the findings to the FBI and the Kentucky Office of the Attorney General.
Phillip Hedrick, the current Boyd County attorney, who was not in that office at the time of the allegations, noted that he generally agrees with the recommendations made by Harmon for changes to state law regarding the auditing of county attorney offices.
Harmon’s auditors discovered the Gallatin County attorney’s office paid over $36,000 for both personal expenses and expenses related to the Gallatin County attorney’s private law office. The majority of those funds came from the office’s delinquent tax fund, for which the county attorney’s wife is responsible as the county attorney office’s bookkeeper.
Auditors discovered through an examination of records and interviews, accounts with the county attorney’s office were used to pay credit card bills, a family monthly cell phone bill, expenses for the private law practice and a loan to the county attorney’s private law office.
This finding will be referred to the FBI, the Kentucky Office of the Attorney General and the Gallatin County Ethics Commission.
Gallatin County Attorney John G. Wright says there may have been some confusion over money he received, as the county does not provide office space, so he uses his private law office for that purpose and gets paid rent money by the county. He also said he is in the process of hiring a CPA to review the audit and make recommendations on best practices going forward.
Over a two year fiscal period, auditors determined the Lawrence County attorney awarded $134,500 in bonuses from delinquent tax fees to employees within his office. Of the bonus amounts, 94 percent of the money was given to the Lawrence County attorney’s wife, totaling $126,500.
Auditors noted the awarding of bonuses violates the Kentucky Constitution, unless the bonus is paid for work performed. The bonuses may also violate local ethics rules because more than 90 percent of the amount went to his wife, thereby providing a substantial benefit to the Lawrence County attorney.
This finding is being referred to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Internal Revenue Service, the Kentucky Office of the Attorney General, Kentucky Department of Revenue and the Lawrence County Ethics Commission.
Lawrence County Attorney Michael Hogan responded to the findings about his wife, saying while her title is legal secretary, she also effectively serves as office manager, chief administrative officer and human resources director, in addition to a wide range of other duties.
While the Lawrence County Ethics Code states no immediate family member can work for a county official, Hogan says she was in the position before they were married, and there is an exception if the person can be deemed the best-qualified. He says the Ethics Commission made a formal determination that she was the best-qualified for the job.
Hogan added while the bonuses to his wife were not payment to him in excess of statutory limitations, he takes the audit seriously and will follow its recommendations, including elimination of the supplemental salary payments from the delinquent tax fund.