State Audit Finds Numerous Problems With Rogers County Finances

Wednesday, April 2nd 2014, 5:04 pm

An audit revealed potential fraud by one Rogers County Commissioner, as millions of tax dollars are unaccounted for.

There are 66 pages in the report. It uncovers a year's worth of questionable spending, bogus invoices and violations of state bidding laws.

The state auditor said he doesn't know exactly where $5 million in FEMA money went. A financial probe said Rogers County claimed the cash was spent on road construction, but without proper documentation of bills, invoices or approval by county personnel.

The state auditor said he's alarmed "that FEMA may have been billed for more than what actual costs were."

According to the report, an invoice for more than a quarter-million dollars was submitted for reimbursement twice. The auditor said the county submitted a totally false invoice for $36,000 to Oklahoma Emergency Management for various projects.

Two county commissioners point the finger at Commissioner Mike Helm, saying he was overseeing those projects.

Investigators said the county also violated competitive bidding laws, signing sweetheart deals with the highest bidder, instead of the lowest, and in some cases, making purchases without getting bids at all.

The report shows one of those companies gave $2,000 to Helm's re-election campaign. That same company has received more than $8 million; some of it for jobs it never performed.

This isn't the first time Commissioner Helm has been under the microscope. Last August, he was named in a grand jury petition for many of the issues uncovered by the audit, including using county equipment for personal use.

At the time, Helm welcomed an investigation.

"Any time we can be transparent before the people, we are going to do that. That's why the people have put me back in office for three times," he said.

While calling for transparency, Helm was the only commissioner who chose not to respond to a single accusation in the state auditor's report.

Our calls to Helm have also gone unreturned.

The auditor said this report will be sent to the District Attorney's Office and the Attorney General's office.

We did speak with Commissioner Kirt Thacker. He said he and the third commissioner took over finances for Helm's district a few years ago because he felt there was a problem. He said he had no idea how much money was allegedly mismanaged.

He said he doesn't believe the money was stolen or embezzled, but he said it is possible Helm spent it on alternate projects that weren't approved. He said the board has it under control and is waiting to determine what measures to take.

Oklahoma State Auditor & Inspector Gary Jones says the audit covered the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2011.

The audit found numerous problems ranging from a lack of internal controls to evidence the county billed FEMA twice for the same items to a lack of a Disaster Recovery Plan for the County Treasurer and the County Sheriff.

Read the whole audit here.

The audit lists the following items of interest:

Finding 2011-16 – Overcharges and Fictitious Invoice Submitted for Federal Reimbursement: An apparent fictitious invoice of $36,476.78 was used to claim FEMA expenditures on several projects. FEMA expenditures were over-charged through double invoicing in the amount of $258,018.09 and through claimed estimates in excess of the actual invoices of $25,853.08. (Pg. 23)

Finding 2011-17 – Questioned Costs Related to Federal FEMA Funds: A total of $5,524,224.85 of questioned costs were noted throughout the entirety of the FEMA project. This consisted of expenditures claimed without sufficient documentation, invoices submitted twice for reimbursement, and incorrect charges for equipment use and labor. (Pg. 25)

Finding 2011-18 – Advance of FEMA Funds for Equipment Lease-Purchased: The County financed
$666,343.04 of equipment purchases made while claiming the full purchase price as expenditures incurred to FEMA. One piece of equipment was financed for 13 months after reimbursement was made. (Pg. 27)

Finding 2011-19 – Apparent Waste of Federal Funds – Lowest Price Not Sought in Purchase of Drill Rig: The County failed to bid in a way to ensure the County received the lowest and best price available. In this instance, the County expended $73,910 more on a drill rig than was necessary. (Pg. 29)

Finding 2011-21 – Bid-Restricting – Preference Shown to Vendor: The County solicited bids for a trade name product of "ChipLock," thus restricting bids to one vendor. This same vendor was once granted sole-source status, and the County has expended $8,085,611.56 with this vendor since July 1, 2010. (Pg. 31)

Finding 2011-22 – No Verification of Road Construction/Materials Documented: The District 2 Commissioner approved road projects with a vendor in amounts ranging from $6,000 to $2.5 million without ensuring funds were available. Further, these expenditures did not have proper supporting documentation. (Pg. 33)

Finding 2011-23 – Back-Dated Documents Submitted for FEMA Project – Engineering Services Not Competitively Considered: Documentation was back-dated between the County and an engineering firm to create the appearance of competitively considering engineering services in accordance with FEMA requirements. (Pg. 35)

Finding 2011-24 – County Property Used for Personal Use: The County Treasurer's cell phone has $40 Internet and $20 texting packages, and it is not used exclusively for work-related matters. The Internet card assigned to the Treasurer incurred data charges of $481.13 between 10:48 P.M. on a Sunday night to 1:24 A.M. on the following Monday morning. (Pg. 37)

Finding 2011-25 – Board Approval Not Obtained for Work on Private Property: The District 3 Commissioner used County-owned equipment to perform work on land leased by the Commissioner, and work was performed after midnight on 7/1/2011. The work was not approved by the BOCC, nor was a written agreement obtained from the landowner to perform this work. (Pg. 38)

Finding 2011-26 – Public Information Officer Paid from Restricted Highway Funds: The County paid a public information officer $12,000 out of the T-Highway Fund, and none of the work performed was work on county roads. All monies expended out of the T-Highway Fund are to be for county roads. (Pg. 40)

Finding 2011-27 – Purchases "Split" to Avoid Competitive Bidding: Two instances were noted where District 2 split purchases, and District Attorneys have opined that these instances were improper. One instance was $56,200 of equipment split between six purchase orders between March 29, 2012 and August 13, 2012. (Pg. 41)

Finding 2011-28 – Vendor-paid Events – Contributions Solicited from Vendors: On several occasions the District 2 Secretary (currently Rogers County Clerk) solicited donations/contributions from vendors for parties and events. (Pg. 42)

The report contains responses from the county officials. In some cases they explain how they've taken steps to address the problems the auditor found. In others they dispute the claims made by the auditor and in some cases, some of the county officials chose not to respond.