Harris says ‘face reality’

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 11, 2002

Messenger Publisher

Pike County Commission Charlie Harris says he thinks some of his fellow commissioners "don’t want to face reality" when it comes to the severity of recent audit findings.

"When they called us in to give this report to us, a lot of things were said," Harris said. "And some commissioners don’t want to face reality."

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The Department of Examiners of Public Accounts reported four findings from its audit of the commission records between Oct. 1, 2000, and Sept. 30, 2001.

One of those findings indicates that the then-chairman of the commission authorized a pay increase for an employee assigned the duties of a temporarily vacated position, yet the authorization was not in the minutes of the commission’s meeting.

The action resulted in about $8,500 in unauthorized additional pay to that employee, Harris said. He believes about $1,700 has been repaid since the audit findings were shared with commissioners.

"(The auditors) told us that something should be done about it, but it was up to the commissioners" to pursue an investigation, Harris said. Other commissioners "want to be quiet and push it under the table," he added.

Harris and Commissioner Larry Meeks, who on Tuesday called for an investigation into the incident, both said the chairman at the time, Willie Thomas, acted outside the authority of the commission in approving any pay increase.

"I want an investigation into the actions that were committed and what wrong-doing there was, if any," Meeks said on Tuesday. "The temporary assignment and the related pay increase were not brought before the commission. The commission chairman made that decision and he was not authorized to do that

"If it happens once, you have to wonder if it’s happened before."

County Attorney Allen Jones is advising the commission, but Harris said Wednesday he joins Meeks in calling for an investigation.

"Our attorney is going to lead us into it, but I hope we can give it to the district attorney," Harris said.

Commission Chairman Karen Berry said Tuesday that the audit findings are turned over to the grand jury as a matter of policy. She would not comment further.

Harris said he also wants to pursue the issue with the state ethics commission. "All of this stuff that’s been done

the ethics committee should get involved," he said.

Harris also said he has requested that the employee involved in the issue be put on administrative leave. "But they wouldn’t do that," he said. He also said he believes that Thomas, who continues to represent District 1, should step down from the commission, among other commissioners who are reluctant to pursue this issue.

"I feel that some people at the county level right now should step down because of their actions to the county," Harris said. "I don’t like the way county government is operated."

Other commissioners include Kay Penn and Ray Goodson. Neither has commented publicly on the issue.

On Tuesday, Meeks said he would not "sweep anything under the rug."

"This was an unauthorized pay raise and both parties knew the correct procedure for such an act. I understand that the money has been paid back, and that makes me think they knew it was wrong," he said. "If what they did was perfectly legal, why didn’t they fight it?

"Another question I have is, if the audit had not found the unauthorized, illegal pay raise, would the money have been paid back?"

Meeks said he wants to "get to the bottom of this. I don’t want this to happen on my watch."