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DSS finance mess continues to stump

http://66.225.205.104/LM20091124.mp3

Mecklenburg County auditors have been trying to figure out how a program that provided gifts to foster children spent $162,000. Some commissioners now say the money has been fully accounted for, although that's not how one of the program's main boosters sees it. WFAE's Lisa Miller has more: Charlotte Observer Columnist Tommy Tomlinson has a stake in the investigation of the Giving Tree, a program run by the county's Department of Social Services. For the last eight years, he's been asking readers to help give older foster children a good Christmas. People contributed more than $430,000 worth of gifts and cash. On Sunday, Tomlinson apologized to readers. He wrote that he's not completely sure all the money and gifts went to kids. The only thing he knows for sure is that the way the county handled the money was a nightmare. "This is something I helped start and something I think did some good," says Tomlinson. "To not only have lost that opportunity, but to not be even able to figure out where it went wrong, that to me is incredibly disappointing." County officials say there's no evidence any employees stole the Giving Tree money. Yet, they've turned the investigation over to police. County auditors have been able to find receipts to back up most of the purchases. But nearly all of them have been altered in some way. For example, some are missing dates, others names of stores or items purchased. And there were no records whatsoever for $23,000. That is, up until last week. The county's Internal Audit Director Cornita Spears said her office made a mistake. She found a Giving Tree employee had repaid the county $33,000 in February and March. Still, Spears told commissioners at last week's meeting this did not change much. "Although we have gone through and adjusted the reconciling difference, this doesn't have any applicability when it comes to the overall outcome of the audit," said Spears. "We're still unable to provide assurance to which the remaining funds were expended for the purposes intended." County Manager Harry Jones effectively fired Spears after that revelation. She's suspended with pay and Jones says he'll find a permanent replacement. He says that Spears' error damaged the credibility of the department and Mecklenburg County. Does Jones think he's taken enough responsibility for this? "The buck stops with me. I'm the Manager of Mecklenburg County," says Jones. "I go back to my initial point. We have conducted this review of this particular program transparently and out in the sunshine. As manager I will say we've done a good job of trying to explain to the public and elected officials where we are and what the problems were." Jones and commissioners say they've made a lot of changes since the DSS accounting problems became apparent earlier this year. The Giving Tree and other voucher programs have been suspended, all DSS checks are made out by the county's central office, the county has decided to hire more auditors and DSS employees are being re-trained in accounting practices. That's no comfort to Tomlinson. He says he's frustrated he hasn't gotten any answers over the eight months since the investigation began. "I'd like to see someone come forward and either say, 'Here's all the money. We've accounted for every dime. We know for sure what happened to it or we don't have some accounting for it and here's where the fault lies.'" While Jones is in the process of replacing the internal auditor, Tomlinson is more interested in learning if money was misspent or possibly stolen, or, if it wasn't that, who's responsible for the bad bookkeeping. And even though an employee reimbursed the county $33,000, why did he or she have all that money in the first place? Update: County Manager Harry Jones has posted his own defense of how he and others in government have handled the problems in DSS. His post is titled: The Facts Behind the DSS Audit. He takes some shots at the Charlotte Observer's coverage of the issues. His defense also includes video. Among his comments: We could have done this all out of the public eye by not publicly announcing that we were conducting the audits and not reporting the findings to the Board and news media. In hindsight, this seems as though it would have been the easier route to take because we probably would not have had to endure the misinformation that has been reported and the public ire that has developed as a consequence.