Grand jury report critical of Grand County leadership
A grand jury investigating the misappropriation of funds from the Grand County Building Department found no additional county employees or officials were involved in the theft, according to a report.
However, the grand jury report, dated Oct. 15, is trenchant in its criticism of county officials, stating, “There is significant negligence, mismanagement and lack of leadership within the Grand County government.”
Grand County officials first noticed that more than $500,000 was missing from the county building department in October 2013. An ensuing investigation resulted in allegations that former employee Brigid Irish had kept cash and destroyed checks for building permits from the county. Irish deposited just one check to the county treasury in 2013.
Irish was charged with four counts of theft, one count of attempting to influence a public official, 12 counts of forgery and more than 900 counts of embezzlement.
Most of the money has since been recovered.
The new report illuminates the grand jury’s secretive investigation that saw the county manager, finance director, treasurer and others subpoenaed.
Grand County Building Department head Robert Scott Penson, who resigned in June, was “grossly negligent in performing the financial aspects of his duties,” according to the report. Penson received more than $17,000 in severance pay.
The report also details what the grand jury considered to be a culture of mismanagement among county officials, describing County Manager Lurline Underbrink Curran as “a county manager without any actual duties of oversight or power to manage most of the departments within the county.”
The report describes Underbrink Curran’s role in the county as an intermediary for complaints between county departments and county commissioners.
Underbrink Curran did not respond to a request for comment.
The report does credit Underbrink Curran for quickly initiating an investigation once the funds were discovered to be missing.
In events leading up to the discovery of missing funds, Finance Director Scott Berger “failed to properly follow up” with problems he identified in the building department’s accounts, according to the report.
Treasurer, finance director criticized
Berger found discrepancies between the department’s second quarter balances in 2012 and 2013 but did not follow up after Penson attributed a lack of funds in the department to the poor economy, the report says.
The report states that Berger “backed off” after his observations “were met with resistance from Penson and lack of direction and/or support by county leadership.”
“There are parts of the report that I agree with, and there are parts of the report that I do not agree with,” Berger wrote in an email on Wednesday, Oct. 29. “Beyond that, I have no further comment.”
The report was also heavy-handed in its criticism of Treasurer Christina Whitmer, stating, “It defies belief “ that Whitmer was unaware that checks and cash were not deposited in 2013.
The report states that, because Whitmer testified that she had complained to the county manager about a lack of checks coming from the building department, she would have known that the primary form of deposits from the department should have been checks.
Whitmer stated that her office “takes no interest in the actual amounts or forms of deposits from the various departments,” the report says.
Whitmer did not respond to a request for additional comment.
County Commissioner James Newberry said that, though the commissioners have yet to take an official position on report, he believed the grand jury’s accusations of mismanagement stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of county government.
Newberry said that checks and balances in the county could have been better, but that he felt the county has addressed the shortcomings identified in the report.
The county’s annual audit commended the county on the progress it has made in instituting new checks and balances this year.
“I think that we’ve identified the problem and corrected the problem,” he said.
A detailed response from Whitmer included in the report criticizes the grand jury’s understanding of county government.
The response repeats Whitmer’s earlier assertions that county treasurers have “no authority, no involvement, and no oversight” of county departments.
Colorado statutes dictate that county treasurers are responsible for receiving and disbursing county funds.
Whitmer’s response also repeats her claim that she had brought the issue of missing money to the county manager’s attention.
The county manager initially refused to investigate the claim until Whitmer threatened to take the matter to the district attorney, Whitmer said.
The county manager told Whitmer, “We need to keep and deal with this matter in the family,” according to Whitmer’s response in the report.
Whitmer’s response asserts that responsibility ultimately lies with the county finance director, manager and commissioners.
“I did not mismanage my office,” Whitmer wrote. “I was not negligent or derelict in my duties. I attempted to make every person in authority aware of a potential problem in the Building Department, but was ignored.”
The full Grand Jury report can be viewed at: http://www.courts.state.co.us/userfiles/file/Court_Probation/14th_Judicial_District/Grand/Grand%20Jury%20Report-%20Grand%20County.pdf
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