Lakeland mayor says “financial anomalies” discovered, critics call it a political ploy

Lakeland Mayor: "Financial anomalies" found

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Lakeland Mayor Mike Cunningham is claiming the city’s books are bad, and he’s speaking with authorities because of it. Cunningham is calling for a full forensic audit of all city departments as well as the Lakeland school board. But some say the accusations are a political ploy.

“Over the past three months, I’ve been doing extensive research into Lakeland’s records, and I have found numerous financial anomalies,” said Lakeland Mayor Mike Cunningham in a statement to the city’s board of commissioners Thursday night, “I’m not talking one or two. I’m talking double digits.”

The mayor made the allegations of widespread financial impropriety during the final minutes of the commission meeting. Cunningham said he’s discovered information that must be reported to authorities but declined to say publicly what the information is.

Thursday he also took a swipe at those who’ve served before him.

“I will not be held accountable for anything done prior to me taking office,” he stated.

Wyatt Bunker is the former Lakeland mayor ousted by Cunningham in November in a close vote that centered largely around the contentious community debate over construction of a new high school. Bunker said he did nothing improper during his tenure, and Cunningham is using this as a stall attempt to prevent the school from moving forward.

“Political theater man, it’s just ridiculous,” Bunker said Friday. “Simply an effort to block a school, he’s willing to do anything he can.”

WMC Action News 5 spoke with two Lakeland commissioners by phone Friday, Michele Dial and and Wesley Wright. Both said they had no idea what the mayor was talking about during his announcement Thursday. Wright said he wondered why it wasn’t dealt with in executive session.

“It really could’ve been handled better,” said Wright.

Dial didn’t hesitate to criticize Cunningham’s actions.

“It’s disturbing that the mayor is putting our city’s reputation under such scrutiny. The abilities and ethics of our city staff have been attacked with strong insinuations in an apparent political manipulation. The mayor has preached transparency since his campaign, and his actions are in direct opposition to this,” she said.

WMC Action News 5 looked through the past three fiscal years of audits for the city of Lakeland performed by a Memphis accounting firm. The audits show no major issues.

Lakeland Superintendent Ted Horrell wrote in a statement that the district has a history of clean audits.

“We have no reason to believe there has been any activity that would suggest the need for a forensic audit of Lakeland School System or that there is any basis for Mayor Cunningham’s claim that he has found “numerous questionable financial anomalies” in “Lakeland’s records” as that claim may relate to Lakeland School System,” Horrell stated.

Horrell went on to say if there are issues with the school system Cunningham should raise them with the board so they can be investigated and corrected.

A spokesperson for the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury’s office in Nashville said Mayor Cunningham has met with members in their office, but they cannot comment on the information shared. The office also could not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.

“The Comptroller’s Office has broad authority to review government entities including the City of Lakeland. It is our policy not to comment further,” said John Dunn, with the Comptroller’s Office.

Cunningham, reached for comment by WMC Action News 5 on Friday, wrote in an email, “Thank you for reaching out to me regarding my statement last night. I apologize, but I have been advised not to make any additional comments at this time.”

WMC Action News 5 also contacted the two remaining commissioners, Josh Roman and Richard Gonzales, Jr - but we have not heard back.

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