Saturday, August 31, 2002

It's Officially A Crisis Now

Well, the Commercial Appeal has weighed in on the unfolding story of credit card abuse by the outgoing County Mayor's office and it's now officially a "crisis."

There are a handful of stories from the past few days and, condensed into a paragraph, it seems this is the nub of it: After ordering an end-of-administration audit, routine when a Mayor leaves office, irregularities have been found. This happened months ago, but the payments to reimburse the improper credit charges have begun to really pour in as things wind down. Two people, the County Mayor Jim Rout and his number one aide Tom Jones, are the only people who have been publicly identified, so far. Although Jones has been making payments, when the story broke in the CA Rout "suspended" him -- giving him a week's paid vacation, in essence.

That's it. But to read the CA, you'd think it was an exploding body, scattering gore everywhere.
On Monday, Rout suspended his senior adviser, Tom Jones, as
Jones was busily submitting checks to pay back at least $45,000
for personal expenses dating back to 1999. Rout officially leaves
office after today; he had not sought re-election.

John Trusty, director of administration and finance, said Friday
that the use of county credit cards for personal expenses has
never been permitted.

"I do not believe nor will I ever say that personal use was an
acceptable use," said Trusty, who Friday said he was toughening
the review process of credit card bills to screen for misuse.

Rout said Friday that he has written 55 or 56 checks in all since
February 1995 to reimburse the county for "anything that was
not, to our knowledge, a county charge."

Of the copies of 13 Rout reimbursement checks obtained by The
Commercial Appeal so far, which total $5,553.57, eight were
submitted in the past two months.
This is not to say that some odd things haven't happened:
One of the heftiest [Rout] checks, $968.52, was half the bill for a
$1,937.04 dinner at Vidalia, a Washington restaurant with
"Southern charm" according to one reviewer.

Rout and County Commission Chairman Morris Fair, who
reimbursed the other half, treated commissioners to dinner using
the card in March during a National Association of Counties
Tom Jones, Rout's senior adviser, spent $112.65 on a variety of
books in late December, including The Pop-Up Book of
Nightmares, Dangerous Curves: The Art of the Guitar and Walking
the Bible: A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses.

That purchase from is among dozens Jones made for
books, CDs and DVDs in the past five years, according to details
in 1,000 pages of photocopied credit card statements and
receipts released late Thursday afternoon.
But what's happening here is what has always happened with power, privilege and money -- power corrupts. These folks buy into the "leader" mentality and think themselves better than the common run, forgetting that they are public servants. Rationalization leads these people to this kind of thing, "I'm too busy; I have a lot of important things I'm responsible for. It won't hurt if I do this."

The controls are there, but as John Trusty points out:
Years ago, he said, finance division clerks checked credit card
charges to make sure they were for legitimate county business
uses. They would notify managers of potential problems, he said.

"What I have learned this morning is we've had a breakdown in
control over transition of a couple of different heads of that
department over the last couple of years," Trusty said.

Trusty's predecessor, Henry J. Marmon, was accused in 1998 of
misdirecting tax dollars for personal use. Later, Marmon, a
holdover from the Bill Morris administration, pleaded guilty to
embezzling $40,000 from county government between 1996 and

Trusty said finance employees have only been checking for
receipts and not asking, "Does this make sense as a county

Trusty said he instructed finance administrator Mike Swift on
Friday to revive the practice of screening for misuse on all credit
cards, including those of elected officials.

"I don't have the authority to tell an elected official, 'I won't pay
it,' but we're going to certainly raise the flag and ask questions,"
he said.
There's nothing new here. It's just doing your job, being an honest person of integrity. Knowing it's not your money, but the public's.

Which leads us to this:
Rout said: "...ours was looked at by the
auditors, as was (Chief Administrative Officer) Mr. (Jim) Kelly's, as
was all of the elected officials, you know internal auditors and
Meaning a lot of folks knew, and appear to have known since April at least, but it only got to the public this past week. Interesting....Who tipped off the CA, when and why? Those are the important questions now.
"Nobody had made me aware that we had any problems. I think they probably should have in the case of Tom's," [John] Trusty [director of administration and finance], said. "Literally, I found out what was going on when I started reading it in the paper, unfortunately."
Which is frightening in more ways than one.

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