Following investigations, commissioner says transparency is key

(WMC-TV) - A Shelby County Commissioner said Sunday that transparency is the best way to shed light on how taxpayer dollars are spent or misspent.

Recent Shelby County Chancery Court investigations by both the county auditor and county attorney reveal $1.1 million is missing from the court.

The reports allege surplus money from the sale of tax delinquent homes may have been steered into the business account of a company co-owned by the court's bookkeeper over a five-year period.

The bookkeeper, his supervisor, and the clerk and master have since resigned.

"This isn't any different than we had two years ago with the Shelby County Clerk's Office and the General Sessions Court," said Shelby County Commissioner Mike Ritz.

In 2009, a county attorney investigation concluded auto registration employees in the Shelby County Clerk's Office accepted gratuities for favors.

"A lot of people lost their jobs and had to quit and some of them got punished," said Ritz.  "But at the end of the day, the public never finds out what went on."

Earlier this year, General Sessions Court Clerk Otis Jackson was indicted over accusations he pressured employees to raise money for his 2012 re-election campaign.  While the county audit found no evidence of fraud in a 2009 investigation, it did find accounting weaknesses, an overstatement of $2.5 million and overspending on employee events.

"It just goes on and on and on," said Ritz.

All three county offices are autonomous, meaning the county mayor and the commission have no direct oversight of daily operations.  Ritz said the commission can hold open hearings.

"I'm hoping the commission chairman will allow the two committees, General Government and Internal Audit, to start looking into these problems," said Ritz.

Ritz said taxpayers lost out in all three scenarios, and the problems do not seem to be getting better.  He said he is unaware of any action taken since the Chancery Court audit and called the silence frustrating.

"Maybe the FBI and the state have been looking into this," he said.  "All those interviews are quiet, off the record, not public.  What we're proposing to do would be public."

Ritz said the information of a special investigative committee may shed enough light on the problems to ensure more prudence with taxpayer money.

"Why can't this all be given the light of day, so to speak?  Let's try to find out what happened," said Ritz.

So far, no Chancery Court employees have been charged with any wrongdoing in relations to the audits.  October 12 is the next time commissioners come together for committee meetings.

It is unclear if the formation of an investigative committee will be up for discussion.

To read the audits for all three cases, click the following links:

Shelby County General Sessions Court Audit

Shelby County Clerk's Office report

Shelby County Chancery Court Internal Control Study

NOTE: An error in this story that said Otis Jackson resigned earlier this year has been corrected. Jackson was indicted, but has not resigned.

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