When Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross held a press conference two days before Christmas announcing the board was sending Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal a letter asking him to look into alleged misconduct by Tax Commissioner Kay Allen, he told reporters that oversight of constitutional officers was extremely difficult.
“It is our desire that this matter be resolved quickly so we all can again begin to rebuild the public trust if it is found to be necessary,” Cross said in a prepared statement to the media. “Elected constitutional officials are given almost unlimited powers in the performance of their duties without oversight from this or any other body.
“Our auditors constantly review written records of all county funds but it is impossible where no records exist.”
For the past several months, the FBI has been conducting a joint investigation with the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office to find out whether Allen has been improperly profiting from contracts to collect taxes for Harlem and Grovetown.
But was the Columbia County Commission warned that a lack of oversight of constitutional officers could become problematic?
Back in December 2010, an Audit Committee was told that the county should look into upgrading technology or, in some cases, adding technology altogether to better monitor the county’s financial reporting.
As part of the year-end audit process in 2010, Financial Services Director Leanne Reece brought in the accounting firm of Cherry, Bekaert and Holland to audit the county’s constitutional offices: the Columbia County sheriff’s office, probate court, magistrate court, clerk of court and the tax commissioner’s office.
Though a part of county government, the constitutional office’s finances are reported differently, which made an independent audit necessary.
Representing the firm, partner Bonnie Cox reported in 2010 on the difficulties of coming in once a year to look at the agency funds because they don’t have the financial reporting technology that the county departments have.
Cox maintained such oversight was necessary, but costly.
“I realize that increasing financial reporting may not be the highest on everyone’s priority list,” she said. “It takes resources. It takes people.”
The main suggestion she offered was the use of an electronic general ledger system, though she admitted there was no single answer to cover each of the constitutional offices.
“The details of how to do all that are going to be different at each of those offices depending on the level of activity, their reporting needs and the personnel they’ve got,” Cox told the commission in 2010. “It’s not the same answer for each one of them, but this is the goal.”
She added the modernization of the constitutional officers’ accounting would be helpful, but costly.
In response, Reece proposed using county accountant Lance McGahee to help.
“He is a former auditor and has actually worked with all of our constitutional offices at some point in time,” she said. “I would like to propose that, as an assistance to the constitutional offices, Lance can go out monthly or quarterly or whatever and complete the data that is needed for the end of the year.”
She said such a move would make it easier at the end of the year.
“It is very costly in audit fees when we wait,” Reece said in 2010.
Whether this was a look into the future or not, clearly there needs to be much more oversight of each constitutional officers’ finances wherever possible. Otherwise, Columbia County commissioners might find themselves back in a scandal, throwing up their hands and turning to the governor again for help.
Now, that would be very costly for Columbia County.