Grand County board deflects criticism in building dept. scandal, points to treasurer
HOT SULPHUR SPRINGS — A response from Grand County Commissioners to a citizen group regarding transparency seemed to bring about more questions than it answered.
Chas McConnell and John Dickinson, spokesmen for the group Citizens for Transparency in Grand County Government, presented the commissioners with a list of questions at their May 20 meeting.
On Monday, June 2, the commissioners presented a response to those questions, which mostly pertained to detailed dates and events surrounding the county building department scandal.
The board said members of its current auditing company had never heard of a fraud audit, which was requested by the group in its questions.
Commissioners referred to a 2012 county audit that “found no material weaknesses of any internal controls,” and said the County Treasurer should have notified the county that there were absolutely no building-department cash deposits made from Jan. 1, 2013 until late October. Commissioners defended County Manager Lurline Underbrink Curran, saying she did look into the matter when she was informed there were stale checks being deposited from the building department.
“When the county manager contacted the Chief Building Official about the checks being deposited 60-90 days past the date of the check, she was advised that the building department was waiting for proof of insurance to complete the contractor’s licensing before depositing the checks,” commissioners wrote in responses to citizen questions, dated June 1.
Their four-plus pages response also admonishes the treasurer for “unilaterally” refusing to accept and disburse funds received by the building department because of an alleged conflict between the building department secretary and the treasurer.
“The building department’s secretary advised that she stopped making deposits so that she didn’t have to deal with the county treasurer,” the county response states.
Following their response, commissioner Merrit Linke presented a list of his own questions, which point to culpability of treasurer Christina Whitmer’s office in failing to notice that money was missing.
Linke stated that they were just “questions that came up.”
Partcularly, Linke asked why the treasurer’s office had not kept a cash ledger to record each cash deposit. State statutes dictate that the treasurer must keep an account of all receipts and expenditures that come into his or her hands.
Whitmer stated that information was available electronically, and the county manager and attorney “don’t understand how it works.”
Linke also questioned why the treasurer had not reported her suspicions directly to commissioners.
Whitmer said that her department had tried constantly to let the county know that there were problems with the building department.
Treasurer defends role
“The whole foundation of this is they didn’t take my complaining seriously, and this is what they end up with,” Whitmer told the Sky-Hi News. “And because of that, they are turning the tables and are putting it on me.”
During the meeting, Whitmer stated that the sheriff’s report could prove that she had alerted the county to issues with the building department.
Sheriff Rod Johnson declined to release the report upon requests from the Sky-Hi News, citing sensitive information that could influence a jury. The sheriff had given copies of the report stamped “confidential” to the Grand County Attorney Jack Dicola and to Grand County Treasurer Christina Whitmer, parties of the case, to help with the forensic audit, he said.
Johnson also said that, given the information he had, he did not expect more charges to be filed.
“It is unbelievable, the response that the commissioners have given you,” Whitmer said at the June 2 meeing. “It is not the county treasurers responsibility to manage, audit or balance the other departments revenue that comes in. The statute clearly states that the county commissioners are responsible for the county funds.”
The 14th Judicial District Attorney Brett Barkey stated in a phone interview on Monday, June 2, that his office is looking into the case, and that although one person is charged, is examining other areas of the case. Barkey doesn’t expect completion of the D.A.’s review until “the end of the summer.”
Department head Scott Penson announced his resignation, effective June 10, on May 27. It has been determined that Penson failed to notice alleged criminal activity of former employee Brigid Irish, who is accused of taking money from the department.
“Scott Penson was just an uninvolved department manager,” said Scott Berger, county finance director. “He just didn’t know what (Irish) was doing.”
McConnell also asked the board during the June 2 meeting whether a meeting the county board held with Whitmer following a March 7 story published in the Sky-Hi News regarding the county’s missing money had been held in violation of Colorado’s open meeting laws, meaning it had not been posted ahead of time.
“Could be,” said commissioners Gary Bumgarner and Linke.
Commissioner James Newberry told the Sky-Hi News that he didn’t recall that particular meeting and did not believe an illegal meeting had been held.
Linke also stated during the meeting that he believed the county commissioners had the right to know whether any county employees are members of the citizens group, which drew ire from some citizens present.
“I guess my concern is there is already a culture of fear and intimidation as a county employee, and there’s consequences to our voice if we do speak up, and I think that continues that culture,” said Taunia Shipman, county employee and East Grand School Board president.
The commissioners responded that was something that should be addressed.
A private firm is currently conducting a forensic audit of the county building department, the results of which Newberry said would be presented at the June 17 county commissioners meeting. There will be an open discussion on the audit as an agenda item at the June 24 meeting, he said.
Hank Shell can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19610.
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