JONESBORO An Atlanta-based auditing firm will look into the Clayton County Board of Commissioners’ past handling of taxpayer dollars and unspecified allegations which may or may not include misconduct, according to county documents.
The commission voted 3-2 to hire White Elm Group, LLC to conduct a forensic audit of county finances Wednesday, with commissioners Sonna Singleton and Gail Hambrick voting against the inquiry.
Interim County Attorney Jack Hancock told commissioners in a pre-meeting work session that “no specific work has been identified” for White Elm to look into. However, the firm’s managing partner Marc L. Effron sent a letter to county leaders Dec. 28 which shows at least a general idea of what he expects to look into.
Although Effron doesn’t go into detail about the nature of the allegations mentioned in his letter, his statements echo concerns a citizens watchdog group expressed about county finances months ago.
“Although our specific responsibilities under this agreement are subject to change by mutual agreement, you currently require forensic accounting assistance including inquiry and analysis of certain financial allegations in connection with county management and prior commissioners,” Effron wrote.
Effron’s letter states he and his staff will be paid up to $295 per hour to conduct the forensic audit for the county. The county will also have to pay the auditors $355 per hour — which Effron writes is his company’s regular standard hourly rate — if they have to provide expert testimony about their findings during a hearing or trial.
A forensic audit had been a campaign promise of new Chairman Jeff Turner and new District 3 Commissioner Shana Rooks, who had repeatedly said they needed the audit so they would know what they were inheriting from their predecessors.
“A lot has gone on in the past couple of years, and for new leadership to come into the county — for us to be held accountable and responsible for what we have inherited, I for one need to be comfortable with what’s going on in our finance department,” said Turner on Wednesday.
In a letter to Turner, Hambrick said his calls for a forensic audit sounded like an accusation of wrongdoing in the county government. “One must assume you mean there is a need to determine whether fraud exists in one or all of the agencies in Clayton County,” Hambrick wrote.
However, there is no clear indication listed in county documents to show what departments will be looked at during the audit. Hancock told commissioners their vote Wednesday was just a formality to hire White Elm, but they still have to decide on the parameters of the audit. He added the firm will not be paid any money until the commission decides which areas of county government are to be audited.
“The board would designate work they want that group to perform sometime in the future,” Hancock said. “This merely hires them to do that whenever the board so designates.”
Hambrick and Singleton said they opposed the forensic audit because the Atlanta-based auditing firm Mauldin & Jenkins LLC completed its own annual audit for the county last week.
“I’m still confused as to why we are doing an audit on top of another audit,” said Singleton during the commission’s business meeting Wednesday.
Hambrick had commission Clerk Shelby Haywood read a lengthy letter to the commission, which outlined five reasons for her opposition to the White Elm forensic audit. In the letter, the commissioner said she was committed to “uncover wrongdoing where ever it may exist” and went to mention the previous audit and praised the job performance of the county’s finance department.
In her letter, Hambrick pointed out the county paid Mauldin & Jenkins $160,000 for its audit. She added the county’s finance office has received several awards from the Government Finance Officers Association for previous annual audits.
“You are now asking this board to enter in an agreement with company to perform a more in-depth audit without providing us with the scope of work and most importantly how much it will cost,” Hambrick wrote. “I know we could pay as much as $300 per hour, but we don’t have any idea how many hours we will be paying for.”
But Commissioner Michael Edmondson told his colleagues a forensic audit could give the board a better idea of where the county has come to financially since the fiscal year 2013 budget was approved last summer. He pointed out the budget has been amended several times since it was approved.
“Commissioners, I for one have not received a budget report in any way shape or form since last year’s preliminary annual budget [dated June 5],” Edmondson said. “Whether it takes one hour or 10 hours, I would be very interested in seeing a new line in the sand of where we are and what we have to work with, especially after all of the budget amendments over the last six months.”