The suspension of Newton County Fire Chief Kevin O’Brien pending investigation into the misuse of county purchasing cards, or P-cards, last week seemed to be on commissioners’ minds at Tuesday night’s Board of Commissioners meeting.
Commissioner Levie Maddox asked that the board consider hiring an outside audit firm to review P-card and cash expenses.
County Manager Harry Owens agreed that an outside firm needed to be brought in, but for the moment, feels that just P-card purchases should be the priority.
Owens recommended that the commissioners hire a certified fraud auditing company, with no ties to Newton County.
“As you know, due to some recent events, I took immediate action,” he said, adding that he called in all of the P-cards except those held by constitutional officers, such as the sheriff, clerk of court or probate judge. Only six of those recalled have been reissued, he said.
He also encouraged the constitutional officers to stay on top of the purchases made with the P-cards. “We have a purchase card policy which specifically relies on the integrity of department heads to stay atop expenses,” he said. “When someone abuses [the system], we will swiftly take action.”
Commissioner Lanier Sims commended Owens for the swift response to the situation, and said it was a good time for the BOC to review the P-card purchasing policy. Commission Nancy Schulz also supported the staff’s action, saying, “There may be a weakness in the [P-card] policy, but in terms of the policy, I believe the staff enforced it to the best of their ability.”
Commissioner J.C. Henderson did not praise the county staff for its response, saying that in his experience, someone in personnel knew how the P-cards were being used.
Later, during the citizen commentary period, county resident Aaron Brooks took Henderson to task, saying he was appalled at the disrespect shown employees at the meeting. Henderson and Brooks began shouting at one another before Chair Keith Ellis stepped in to end the dispute.
The motion to hire an outside certified fraud auditor passed, 4-0, with Henderson abstaining from the vote. Henderson’s abstention also drew criticism from Gladstone Nicholson during the citizen’s commentary period.
Nicholson said abstaining from a vote “does no one any good,” adding that commissioners were elected by citizens to vote on issues facing the county.