Eau Claire County Courthouse

EAU CLAIRE — The Eau Claire County Board’s decision to delay voting on an amendment to a resolution authorizing the county to conduct a forensic audit into the county Department of Human Services followed about two hours of discussion, including input from the Eau Claire County Sheriff’s Office.

On Tuesday night the board postponed consideration of the amendment until its Oct. 6 meeting in order to have time to verify where the money for actions in the amendment would come from. The amendment, which was postponed by a 19-10 vote, proposes spending up to $75,000 to conduct a program audit of DHS and up to $25,000 “to hire forensic experts to pursue the full scope” of alleged credit card theft related to an ongoing criminal case against a former DHS employee.

Supervisor Kevin Stelljes drafted the amendment to allow the Sheriff’s Office to investigate potential criminal activities and, separately, to conduct a thorough program audit of DHS. The alleged credit card theft refers to a case against former DHS employee Zer Smith, who was charged last month with nine counts of fraud relating to credit card purchases at DHS between November 2018 and August 2019. A court hearing in that case is scheduled for Nov. 10. If approved, the Sheriff’s Office investigation would “include heretofore unreported thefts or other persons involved,” according to the amendment.

According to Stelljes’s amendment, a DHS program audit would focus on three areas: evaluation of DHS management controls and improvement recommendations; evaluation of accounting and forecasting practices; and evaluation of program effectiveness to determine how successful DHS is in delivering services.

The County Board also approved an amendment to Stelljes’s amendment noting that if either the $25,000 forensic examination or $75,000 program audit go over budget, they would be referred to the Administration Committee and Finance and Budget Committee.

A program audit is different from a forensic audit. A program audit looks at an organization to determine if the organization is meeting its performance goals. A forensic audit analyzes an organization’s financial records specifically to search for illegal activity.

Supervisor Steve Chilson, co-author of a resolution that would authorize the county to spend up to $100,000 to conduct a forensic audit of DHS, said community confidence in DHS is low and a forensic audit would help restore that confidence.

Indeed, the County Board received 30 public comments Tuesday night supporting a forensic audit of DHS.

“We owe it to the taxpayers to do everything we can to find out everything we can and take corrective action,” Chilson said.

Resolution support

The Eau Claire County sheriff, district attorney and treasurer support the resolution. Chilson urged supervisors to listen to those law enforcement and financial experts and move forward with a forensic audit.

Supervisor Mark Beckfield, the resolution’s other co-author, said the total amount of money potentially unaccounted for in the Smith case is at least five figures, since the criminal complaint against Smith states that she purchased 43 prepaid gift cards each worth $500. DHS records only show receipt or approval of 17 gift cards, leaving at least $13,000 unannounced for. That unaccounted for money should be enough to justify a forensic audit, according to Beckfield.

“This is not small potatoes that we’re talking about,” Beckfield said.

Supervisor Carl Anton said the County Board owes clarification to county workers regarding the financial situation of the department, and that clarity cannot happen without a forensic audit.

“We need to get to the bottom of it for the sake of our employees,” Anton said.

Supervisor Robin Leary agreed.

“If we don’t do this, we’re not going to know, and it’s going to continue to be a question,” Leary said. “While I don’t like having to do this, I think it’s necessary.”

Several supervisors voiced opposition to Stelljes’s amendment. Supervisor Judy Gatlin said more discussion should occur about the services DHS provides and the “perfect storm” of challenges the department has faced in recent years, including substance abuse, mental health challenges and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“How can you put metrics on saving people?” Gatlin said.

Supervisor Don Mowry spoke against the amendment, saying there is no known criminal activity in DHS besides Smith’s case.

“Why are we doing this?” Mowry said. “Where’s the evidence that there’s more wrongdoing in the department?”

In order to make a comment regarding the resolution, County Board Chair Nick Smiar stepped down from the chair position while the resolution was discussed, and Supervisor Colleen Bates, the County Board vice chair, took over as chair.

Smiar spoke against the resolution, saying the ”entire matter has the appearance of a whisper campaign with the sole purpose of damaging, intimidating, and bullying both DHS and this board.”

Employees backed

Separate from Tuesday’s meeting, in a recent open letter to all DHS employees, Bates expressed support for their ongoing work “in the most complex department in county government” amid several challenges.

“You continue to serve in a time of increased community needs due to an opioid and meth epidemic, the COVID-19 pandemic, increased homelessness and a major economic downturn,” Bates wrote. “You continue to serve in an environment of flat funding for well over a decade. You serve, in times of hurtful criticism. There are those who will use rare and unfortunate events to cast blame and engage in accusations that are harmful to the leadership and staff who (have) served our community so well. You continue to do the work you love. It is your passion, expertise and time that is such an essential ingredient in implementing best practices and creating a community that cares.”

Others expressed ambivalence during Tuesday’s meeting. Supervisor Heather DeLuka said she is not against a forensic audit but said supervisors don’t have enough information to determine if a forensic audit is warranted.

Supervisor Katherine Schneider asked County Administrator Kathryn Schauf if she thinks a forensic audit is necessary. Schauf said more information is required before she can respond one way or the other.

“It’s hard to say yes or no,” Schauf said. “I know that’s a non-answer, but it’s the best I can give for now.”

Schauf also said a program audit of DHS “may have value.”

Sheriff inquiry update

Information was also provided at Tuesday’s meeting regarding the ongoing Sheriff’s Office fact-finding inquiry into DHS financial practices that began May 29.

Supervisors questioned Joel Brettingen, Eau Claire County undersheriff and captain of field services, about the inquiry. Based in part on the inquiry’s preliminary findings, Brettingen said a forensic audit should “absolutely” occur.

Smiar asked Brettingen what evidence the Sheriff’s Office has to support a forensic audit. Declining to go into specifics about the ongoing inquiry, Brettingen said the Sheriff’s Office knows of several “irregularities” and “anomalies” in DHS that cannot be answered without a forensic audit.

During an interview with the Leader-Telegram Wednesday, Sheriff Ron Cramer reiterated his support for a forensic audit of DHS. Cramer said the inquiry is still in the fact-finding phase and is not yet a criminal investigation.

“We have issues that we need to delve into further before we can absolutely talk about criminality,” Cramer said.

Cramer said his office has interviewed DHS employees in person about operational financial issues as part of the fact-finding inquiry. He declined to say how many DHS staffers have been interviewed. Cramer also said his office is waiting to hear back from some DHS workers about making appointments to talk with his office for the inquiry.

DHS staffers are allowed to have a personal attorney present when they are being interviewed, but Cramer said that probably isn’t necessary if they have correctly done their jobs.

“If you’ve done nothing wrong, if it’s taxpayers’ money, let’s be transparent and let’s get this done,” Cramer said.

Going forward, Cramer said the Sheriff’s Office will follow the evidence gathered during the inquiry until his office does or does not determine it has enough information for the Eau Claire County District Attorney’s Office to review. Cramer did not give a timeline for when the inquiry will end, but he said that when it concludes a discussion with the County Board may occur to discuss the inquiry’s findings.

Other business

The County Board approved the removal from the county bridge plan of a part-time administrative associate in the Eau Claire County Clerk’s Office. The removal would allow the clerk’s office to hire a part-time worker to help with several activities, including those related to the November election.

The County Board approved the removal from the county bridge plan of a full-time fiscal associate position in the County Finance Department. According to the resolution fact sheet, the position “is necessary to leverage day to day operations to allow high-level fiscal staff in the department more time to provide guidance and consultation on financial matters with DHS as well as other departments.”

The next County Board meeting is scheduled for Oct. 6.