The Ohio Secretary of State sent a letter to the Athens County Board of Elections last week warning that he could “remove any board member or employee from office” if any ethics violations are identified after a recent state audit found that the BOE overpaid eight employees – including the board’s director – a total of roughly $1,600.
Ohio Auditor Keith Faber said in a news release last Thursday – announcing results of the state’s fiscal year 2018 audit of Athens County – that the employees being overpaid $1,603 was the result of the Board of Elections’ “poor internal controls.” Athens County Board of Elections Director Debbie Quivey and Assistant Director Penny Brooks repaid the entire amount to Athens County’s general fund as of Aug. 8, the release said.
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose said in a letter to the BOE last Thursday that he was “disappointed” in the audit’s findings. He also gave a stern warning.
“All employees of the Athens County Board of Elections must comply with Ohio’s ethics law and the Secretary of State’s Ethics Policy,” LaRose wrote. “All current and future members and employees of the board are required to complete the Ethics Policy Acknowledgement. I may remove any board member or employee from office if I discover that they violated ethics law or policy.”
LaRose added that boards of election are required to adopt a timekeeping policy reviewed by the Athens County Auditor and is required to draft and adopt a human resources policy that must be reviewed by the Athens County Prosecutor’s Office. A public meeting of the Board of Elections’ governing board was set for early Wednesday afternoon on these topics.
According to records on the Auditor of State’s website, the audit flagged several other issues involving the Board of Elections, including an allegation that some part-time hires had “familial relationships with existing employees working with the Board of Elections.” The audit said that matter has been referred to the Ohio Ethics Commission.
“Sloppy financial organization costs taxpayers time and money,” Faber said in the release. “The Athens County Board of Elections must put controls in place to stop their waste and abuse of taxpayer dollars.”
Because of a “lack of internal controls,” errors were made in calculating overtime pay-time for employees, the release explained, meaning that Quivey and seven other employees were overpaid by $1,603. Quivey herself was overpaid $223. The audit report notes that of the eight people who were overpaid, one of those employees is Quivey’s husband, a part-time employee, and one of them is Quivey’s brother, a temporary employee. The two were overpaid a total of $572.
Quivey in a brief interview last Thursday admitted to the “mistake that we made,” but took umbrage with the use of the terms “waste” and “abuse.”
“Absolutely, there’s no excuse; we made a mistake on time sheets that involved two pay periods in one month, (but) it was a month before the election,” she said. “The minute it was brought to our attention, we repaid it, and I feel it’s a very, very unfair statement to say we were wasting and abusing taxpayers’ dollars.”
Athens County Commissioner Lenny Eliason said last Thursday morning that the Commissioners soon will be “meeting with the Board of Elections to discuss (state) Auditor’s findings.”
Eliason said that the Board of Elections is responsible for developing its own set of policies and procedures to make sure these issues aren’t happening.
According to the record of the audit on the Auditor of State’s website, two “significant deficiencies” were found in internal control at the Board of Elections:
• One of those findings was that the board has issues with its regulation of payroll. The Board of Elections did not have a governing board-approved rate of pay for “additional work performed by non-department individuals.” Also, sick, vacation, compensatory and personal time reports were created that did not have a date indicated by the supervisor that would “substantiate the fact that this time taken was approved timely.”
• Another issue found in the audit is that the elections board doesn’t have a human resources department. Further, the audit didn’t find any evidence that the hiring of part-time employees is ever considered for approval by the governing board of the agency.
“By not having a human resource department or having the board of governance approve the hiring of employees, the department increases the risk of having a bias when hiring,” the audit said. “There are many individuals who assist the Board of Elections during election periods i.e. ‘poll-workers,’ who don’t get board approval, primarily due to the numerous amount of people involved; however, any individual working substantial time and receiving equally substantial benefits should be recommended by the supervisors and formally approved by the Board, especially if a relationship (be it family, friends or other) exists with the current staff and potential candidate.”
The audit took issue with a BOE system where Quivey – a Republican – supervises the hiring of any Republican-affiliated part-time employees, while Deputy Director Penny Brooks – a Democrat – supervises the hiring of any Democrat-affiliated part-time employees. The audit noted that the BOE’s governing board should be the one approving those hires.
Quivey confirmed that she and Brooks used that system, saying “we did not realize we were doing anything wrong.”
“When it comes to a family member,” Quivey added, “(or) anybody’s that’s related, Penny would hire anybody (part-time) that’s related to me; I hire anybody that’s related to her. We supervise those timesheets separately.”
She added that “this is something we’ve been doing for over 30 years.”
Quivey said the elections board’s governing body has been aware of this practice, and hadn’t raised any concerns about it.
Elections board Chair Kate McGuckin said in a statement Friday that the payroll issue was a “simple clerical error.” “To resolve this problem the BOE has revised the time-sheet layout,” McGuckin wrote. “New policies have been written by a working group of the board and staff to prevent further misunderstandings.”
McGuckin added that the BOE “returned” roughly $70,000 to Athens County’s general fund at the end of the last fiscal year, arguing that there was no “intent to defraud taxpayers.”
Asked about the familial hire issues, McGuckin explained that Quivey’s brother and husband worked on Election Day last year as “rovers,” who travel between voting locations to fix or replace malfunctioning voting machines; Quivey’s husband also worked “additional hours” moving voting machines to their new location and other “miscellaneous tasks.”
McGuckin noted that the new personnel policies drafted by the elections board “clearly speak to this (issue)” and added that a new form has been implemented to document hiring of family members during election set-up and voting day.