Audit: Former Terlton mayor spent half of town's budget on computers, phone bill

Thursday, October 26th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TERLTON, Okla. (AP) -- A former Terlton mayor spent more than half the value of the town's annual budget on two laptop computers and a $5,000 cell phone bill, a state audit claimed.

The Pawnee County town of Terlton has 121 residents and an annual budget of $12,000, but now it is flat broke.

State Auditor and Inspector Clifton Scott said Michael C. Owen, 39, spent nearly $2,300 in public money to buy laptop computers for himself and two town employees.

The $5,000 phone bill likely came from Owen's operation of a private ambulance service, said Jeff McMahan, manager of Scott's special audits division.

Auditors will ask District Attorney Larry Stuart on Thursday to investigate their findings for possible criminal charges.

Owen, who resigned as mayor in July, vehemently denied any wrongdoing.

He said the computers were needed to more accurately track city finances and for the town emergency director to track live weather data online. He also denied that his cell phone bill was anywhere close to $5,000 from July 23, 1999, to Aug. 2, 2000, as the auditors alleged. He claimed his bill was about $100 a month during that period.

Owen also said auditors never asked for his side of the story, but McMahan said auditors made numerous attempts to contact him.

"We couldn't ever find him. He didn't want to talk to us. ...

He's just blowing smoke," McMahan said.

Owen said his ambulance service, "Rescue One," is a nonprofit rescue service.

"I receive absolutely no funding for Rescue One," he said. "I subsidize it monthly by making vehicle payments, donating time. Had the auditor contacted me, he would have known about this."

According to the audit, Terlton had an account balance of more than $7,500 in October 1999. By Aug. 18 of this year, the town was more than $1,350 in debt, the audit found.

Town resident Jon Harrod, whose wife used to be the town clerk, said he became concerned when the electric company turned off Terlton's street lights because the city didn't pay its bills.

About 50 residents -- about two-thirds of the town's adults -- signed a petition asking the state auditor to investigate, McMahan said.

Auditors reported that Owen obtained cell phones for himself, two town trustees, one trustee's spouse and a part-time employee.

The town's cell phone bill totaled nearly $7,700 before service was discontinued in August, auditors said.

The audit also said that after Owen resigned he posed as a town representative to buy surplus property -- new tarps and a used portable pump -- from the state Department of Central Services, auditors said.

Owen said the items were bought for use by Rescue One before he resigned.

The audit also investigated whether the former mayor or other town officials bought auto/truck parts for their personal vehicles with town funds.

Despite the picture painted by auditors, Owen said he always had the interest of the town in mind.

"Everything that we did was for the town," said Owen, who also is a Tulsa firefighter. "I have benefited none from any of this."