Regarding the “It Seems to Me” column on Jan. 14, “Clarifying issues relating to the DHS investigation” by Supervisors Mark Beckfield and Steve Chilson, I offer the following clarifications and questions.

The “scathing criticism” and disrespect to which Beckfield refers is my statement that he and Supervisor Steve Chilson acted as “rogue supervisors.” When members of a corporate board, such as the County Board, take it on themselves to take independent action which properly belongs to the board and an oversight committee (DHS), they are indeed rogue actors. They cannot take refuge behind the claim that they brought a citizen complaint when one of them stated that they had the support of a “double-digit number of the Supervisors,” which is a clear indication that they were not acting as citizens but as members of the board. A very basic question is: Why did they choose this route rather than following procedure of the board and thereby disrespect their fellow supervisors and our professional staff?

The request to the sheriff was that he investigate “the financial practices of DHS.” The sheriff accepted the request. However, there was no indication at first whether that would be a civil or a criminal investigation. Civil investigations are not in the sheriff’s jurisdiction. The sheriff announced that the investigation is a criminal investigation. Some have compared this to the Larry Lokken investigation. In that case, the sheriff rejected requests that his office undertake the investigation and said the investigator should be external to the county because it would be improper and a potential conflict of interest to have one unit of county government investigating another unit. That was not done in this case. Also, when the sheriff designated the investigation criminal, our corporation counsel could not provide any services because of the created conflict of interest. That made it necessary to seek outside counsel, which we have done.

Very soon, you will hear complaints about the cost of these legal services. The first question should be: How much has the sheriff’s investigation spent in staff hours, contract services and other costs on this unnecessary “criminal investigation,” with no results?

The sheriff then requested a forensic audit, possibly suggested by the same disaffected supervisors. That request for funding had to come before the full board. When it did, I insisted, as a condition, that the sheriff provide the evidentiary basis (what is the crime being investigated?) as well as the focus, scope and extent of the investigation. Any forensic auditor would need that information in order to do a competent audit. Before the County Board could reach a conclusion on the resolution regarding funding for the audit, the sheriff indicated that he would pay for the investigation and audit through his own budget by a transfer of approximately $100,000 from his overtime budget. So, by that decision, the issue of the audit was removed from the County Board’s consideration and from any questions about the basis for the audit or the investigation. The County Board did not “table” the resolution. When it came up for consideration and a vote, as chairperson, I removed it from the agenda because the sheriff had already indicated he would pay for it, thereby making the resolution void.

The Department of Human Services did have some serious budget overages in 2019, and that was a matter of great concern. However, a budget overage is not a criminal act; it is a management issue and should be handled as such. This entire incident has conflated management issues with criminal activity. We have processes for dealing with management issues, and we implemented those processes. Accounting processes have been clarified, and reporting processes have been improved. DHS is now within budget. There is no “coverup of employee theft” and there is no “missing money.” Repeatedly claiming this does not make it true. All of the money went to programs and services. Check it out with our finance director. Look at our audits.

There is no “stonewalling of the investigators.” The county cannot order its employees to sit for a forensic interview, especially when it is not clear if they are the object of the investigation; that would be a violation of their civil rights. DHS cannot release records which contain identifying information; that would be a violation of HIPPA provisions. DHS cannot release all financial records, case records, emails, telephone records and other records over a three-year period, as requested under the open records law, because of the sheer volume, the staff and time involved, and the lack of a focus of the request. At this point, the criminal investigation is a fishing expedition. It is a conclusion in search of a problem.

Beckfield calls for transparency and accountability. I call for the same, from him, from Chilson, from the sheriff and his investigators, and from others who have involved themselves in this maelstrom of confusion, misinformation and misdirection.

I hope the citizens of the county can recognize this for what it is: a fishing expedition and a political smear campaign to undermine public confidence in our county government and one of our county’s essential services.

Smiar is chair of the Eau Claire County Board on which he represents District 15.