News: CJ Exclusives

Meck County Officials Still Not Talking About DSS Criminal Probe

One week after Mecklenburg County Commission Chair Jennifer Roberts acknowledged publicly an ongoing criminal investigation of the county’s $200 million Department of Social Services, county officials refused to identify the government agency conducting the investigation. County commissioners reportedly were advised of a federal probe while in closed session in early November.

Danny Diehl, the county’s director of public information, responded to e-mail questions on the probe by saying an unnamed deputy county attorney advised him the county cannot comment on the investigation at this time.

Diehl instead directed a reporter to a county Web site which includes a March 2009 audit of DSS operations and the county’s response, but no information on the ongoing criminal probe.

That outside audit, which reportedly cost the county $83,000, turned up some $162,000 in missing or undocumented expenditures in a Christmas charity account administered by DSS employees. Auditors advised radical overhauls for DSS finances, including an end to all credit card purchases by the department. The department had about a dozen Diners Club accounts and one Target charge card with a $99,000 balance, including several hundred dollars in late fees.

As a result of the audit’s findings, DSS’ check-writing authority was transferred to the county finance office and several programs were ended.

Three weeks ago the county revealed that one former DSS employee, whose identity remains unknown, returned $33,000 of the missing funds to the county, along with earrings and a DVD player.

County Manager Harry Jones said the revelation left him “damned embarassed” and he suspended the internal auditor who missed the repayments. Jones has also vowed repeatedly to make public all aspects of the DSS investigation.

“The buck stops with me. I’m the Manager of Mecklenburg County,” Jones told WFAE radio. “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.”

Last week Roberts wrote that she hoped the secret criminal investigation “will produce findings soon, so the public will know the conclusions. I also want to be clear that if there is evidence of illegal activity within DSS — currently we have no firm indication of this — the county will take every action it can to prosecute those responsible to the full extent of the law.”

Below is the list of questions submitted to the county that the county refused to answer:

1. Is there a federal grand jury investigation going on? Approximately when did it begin or when did County learn of it? Has the County received subpoenas or other process compelling production of County documents? Have County personnel been subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury?

2. Is the County cooperating? If so, how?

3. What federal agencies are involved (FBI, U.S. Postal Inspector, etc.?)? (An answer to this question would permit any member of the public with possibly relevant information to contact investigating agents and provide that information.)

4. What lawyer or lawyers are representing the County as to the investigation (in-house or outside counsel)? To what extent is the attorney for County keeping County Commissioners advised of progress in the federal investigation? (briefings, memos, etc.)

5. Is the County paying for separate, independent counsel for any individual County employees or any individual County Commissioners? If so, for whom? If so, who authorized such payments for counsel?

6. Has any County official or employee sworn out a warrant with regard to missing or misallocated DSS funds? If not, why not?

Jeff A. Taylor is the John Locke Foundation’s “Meck Deck” blogger.