Chancery clerk says she’s found evidence of misappropriations

Published 7:00 am Thursday, March 24, 2016

Chancery Clerk Melinda Bowman speaks to the Pearl River County Board of Supervisors.  Photo by Cassandra Favre

Chancery Clerk Melinda Bowman speaks to the Pearl River County Board of Supervisors.
Photo by Cassandra Favre

During the Pearl River County Board of Supervisors meeting held Wednesday, Chancery Clerk Melinda Bowman informed the board members about a number of alleged improprieties carried out by former Chancery Clerk David Earl Johnson, his office manager Marie Burge and Pearl River County IT Director Michael Gervais.
Bowman assumed her position on January 4.
“Yes, there were some records that David Earl Johnson withheld purposefully,” Bowman said. “I think that got out through staff members and his people talking.”
Bowman alleged the previous chancery clerk was paying employees without issuing 1099 forms, which she said is essentially a violation of federal and state tax law.
“There were issues where Burge came in and tried to get two of my employees to illegally pay a debt that the former clerk owed out of my funds and told them to specifically keep it hidden from me,” Bowman said. “On January 18, both of those employees came and told me of those actions.”
Bowman added that board attorney Joe Montgomery asked Johnson to turn over the QuickBooks records, to which Johnson allegedly said “No, I(Bowman) doesn’t need them.”
“He was running a separate set of books in tandem with our AS/400 date, which is what half the state uses and Delta is the company that manages this,” Bowman said. “The entire month of January, Burge had full access to my data without my knowledge. On the day I learned of this on January 27, we called Delta and they were very disturbed by it and they deleted her. She was accessing it from her home. While on the phone with Amber at Delta, she was shocked to find out that Gervais overrode her command to delete Burge and gave her full access back to Johnson’s data and mine.”
Bowman said she addressed this matter with Gervais and instructed him to never give access to her data to anyone unless by her authority. Bowman said Gervais told her that County Administrator Adrain Lumpkin instructed him to give Burge access.
Bowman said when she asked Lumpkin about it, he told her that he told Gervais to only give Burge access to Johnson’s data.
“I’ve always complied with every need she’s had to close out the books for my predecessor,” Bowman said. “But if she needed anything else, she would have to come through me. I even instructed my employees to have no further activity with Burge because of her improprieties.”
Bowman said the state auditors office is aware of the situation and told her that Johnson was required to turn over his second set of books.
“Johnson told me that everything I needed was in the AS/400 system,” she said. “I felt that for us to continue as a transparent government, we need all public records to be in our office for review.”
A few weeks ago, Bowman said she received the QuickBooks file, but is unable to access it because she does not have the application. She said Gervais told her he would order QuickBooks. It’s been several weeks and she still doesn’t have it, Bowman added.
“Also, Gervais cleaned Burge’s computer and wiped the public records off that computer,” Bowman said. “I didn’t get the computer for at least two weeks.”
District II Supervisor Malcolm Perry said he spoke with Gervais about the hard drive and was told it was customary, when a new person takes office, to debug it. Perry said when he asked Gervais about the deletion of QuickBooks, Gervais told him it was because the license expired.
“Just because the license expired does not mean that all of a sudden it vanishes or you can’t use it,” Perry said. “He has totally erased all the information that was on there.”
Bowman said she manages everything through the AS/400 system. The Chancery Clerk’s office, a fee based office, operates almost like a business, Bowman told the board. She had to take out a $50,000 line of credit to pay her staff initially. Bowman said she operates on fees that come through the office from lawsuits, estates, divorces, copies and recording of land deeds.
“My clerk’s clearing account is how I pay for my staff,” Bowman said. “All the money that comes through the fees, I get a percentage of the fees and others are allocated to the state and other funds.”
Bowman alleged Johnson created a separate set of books on his clerk’s clearing account, the land redemption account and another unknown account.
“I felt those were a matter of public record and he kept saying everything I needed was in the AS/400. I wanted to see if he reconciled everything in QuickBooks and if everything was done properly and ethically.”
Bowman said that according to the state auditor’s office, Johnson would be held responsible for everything occurring prior to January 4.
Bowman also added that since January 4, she had to make some changes to practices conducted in the chancery clerk’s office.
“His employees were very upset when I made them start receiving every cash transaction that came through my office,” she said. “The practice they had been under, and several told me this and could verify it, that Burge told them if a person came in to pay for copies and it was under $5, to put that cash in a different drawer. They would make one cash transaction at the end of the day. They could use that money for their lunches and Johnson would host these big lunches. I told them starting on January 4, that if someone comes in to pay $.50 you receive that money and one of the employees told me, ‘that’s too much work.’ I told them, ‘no it is not and we are going to do this correctly. We are not going to misuse and misappropriate public funds for personal use.’ Every dime that comes through my office is not my money, it is public funds and I have to account for that money. As an elected official I’m responsible to these people and upholding the law.”
The board approved a motion to have an independent audit done on both sets of books.
Later in the meeting, the board planned to meet with Gervais in an executive session to hear his side.
Gervais said Burge only had access to data from prior years.
“Her access was restricted in December,” he said. “I would never and have never given people access to other departments. In IT, we are trusted with people’s information and do not just hand out information.”
Gervais said when a PC is moved to someone else, the only thing the IT department does is pull off toolbars, expired programs, screensavers and programs that don’t pertain to the job.
“Basically, it’s a clean up, so they don’t have a buggy PC. There’s no way that we would have gone that type of route. The version of QuickBooks on Burge’s computer expired in November and there was no reason to keep it there,” Gervais said.
Gervais added that Bowman spoke with him briefly about QuickBooks, but he said he had no idea what she needed. He said her copy of QuickBooks has come in and, since she has administrative privileges, can install it.
“I was out sick for a couple of days and trying to play catch up,” he said. “There’s nothing on our side to prevent her from installing it. In IT we try to be and have a duty to ensure the data is protected and only those approved get access. We have nothing to hide and do our jobs to the best of our ability.”
The Item called Johnson and Burge to ask about the allegations made against them. Both said they had no comment at this time.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox