End in sight for Chancery Clerk’s audit

Published 7:00 am Saturday, July 9, 2016

Since March, community members demanded an investigation into a second set of records kept by former Pearl River County Chancery Clerk David Earl Johnson.

Johnson left office in December 2015 when he lost the chancery clerk seat to Melinda Bowman. Bowman took office in January.

When the former Chancery Clerk left office, Bowman noticed that a second set of books maintained on QuickBooks software had been removed from the system.

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The former Chancery Clerk refused to return the records for several months, said Bowman.

Because of this delay, members of the public questioned Johnson’s motives and the validity of his records.

During the March 23 Board meeting, Holliday asked Bowman to describe the improprieties she had discovered, said Bowman.

Since assuming office, she found and corrected several practices by the old administration that were either illegal or not the best practice for the office, said Bowman.

At the May 18 Board meeting, all supervisors, except for Holliday, voted to accept the bid by Horne, an auditing company based in Baton Rouge, for $10,000 to audit the records in questions.

Board President Sandy Kane Smith said the money would be the “best 10,000 we’ve ever spent.”

At the June 21 Board meeting, the progress of the audit was again discussed by supervisors.

County Administrator Adrain Lumpkin presented the Board with a letter drafted by Board Attorney Joe Montgomery addressed to Attorney General Jim Hood asking for an opinion on whether the Board had the authority to hire an independent CPA to audit the records.

After a vote, Supervisors Donald Hart, Farron Moeller, and Holliday voted in favor of sending the letter to the AG.

An opinion was returned by the AG’s office and presented at the July 5 Board meeting.

The AG Opinion letter to the Board dated July 1 states, “the Pearl River County Board of Supervisors may not employ a certified public accountant to perform a financial audit of the former Chancery Clerk’s records.”

“It looks like we’re not going to be able to do it,” said Supervisor Malcolm Perry.

Perry has been a supporter of the independent audit from the beginning because of his stance on transparency, he said.

He decided to pursue the audit because of strong pressure from the public to clear the record, said Perry.

“I’ve opposed the audit basically from the get-go,” said Holliday.

If the Board were to proceed with the audit, based on a majority vote, the state auditors could claim the expenditure as unofficial and force those who voted for it to pay the money back, out of their own pocket, said Holliday.

Previously, Hart said he supported the audit, if it could be done legally, because of citizens’ concerns he wanted to put to rest. But now the AG’s opinion has changed his mind.

“I want to stick with what the opinion says, and proceed on,” said Hart.

Some supervisors want to continue with the audit, however: “I don’t care what the Attorney General opinion says, we need to do the audit,” said Smith.

However, Montgomery said, “If they don’t have the authority to do it, then they do not have the authority.”

The opinion also states, “The newly elected Chancery Clerk has the authority to examine and audit the books and financial records of the former Chancery Clerk.”

Perry said he suggests Bowman request an opinion as to whether she can hire someone to do an independent audit, or do the audit herself.

“The 2014 audit is being conducted already, and consistently they have not had problems with the books being presented,” said Hart.

Bowman issued a statement Thursday saying, “Regarding the requested audit concerning the former Chancery Clerk’s accounts, I am removing myself from that responsibility because I feel like it is not within my scope of duties to do so.”

Her duties as Chancery Clerk and County Auditor do not include financial investigation, said Bowman.

She has brought the concerns to the State Auditor’s Office, as it is their responsibility to conduct these investigations, said Bowman.

Moving forward, Bowman asked that further questions about the audit be directed to the state auditor’s office.

“I want the public to feel confident that their elected officials are doing all we can to promote transparency and honesty in our office,” said Bowman. “I feel both the Board and I have done our best to address the concerns of our citizens.”

“The State Auditor has the right to examine and investigate the books and financial records of the former Chancery Clerk,” states the AG opinion.

Holliday said that he believes the yearly state audits will uncover any problems with the records and that it is time for the Board to focus on other matters.

“We need to move forward; quit spending time and energy and focusing on the past and invest in time on the future for this county,” said Holliday.

Most supervisors have stated they would like to make a final decision by the next Board meeting.

About Julia Arenstam

Staff Writer

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