Buncombe County terminated over half a million dollars’ worth of contracts held by two companies associated with Joseph Wiseman Jr., the engineer the county says is implicated in an alleged kickback scheme involving three former county officials (see “Feds: 3 former buncombe officials got kickbacks,” Aug. 15, Xpress).
The Board of Commissioners halted all contracts for companies that are or have been affiliated with Wiseman during a special meeting at noon on Aug. 14. The companies in question are Environmental Infrastructure Consulting, which purchase orders show held $554,189 worth of contracts with the county, and CDM Smith, which held a new $20,000 contract that had not been invoiced.
Before calling a halt to payments, the county had paid $156,795 to Environmental Infrastructure on current contracts, leaving an outstanding balance of $398,969.
The county has also frozen payment on an $8,000 expenditure for a permit to allow Environmental Infrastructure Consulting to operate the Buncombe County Transfer Station. “We’re going to stop it and transfer that to another engineering firm,” said interim County Manager George Wood.
In response to a question by Commissioner Ellen Frost, Wood said there hasn’t been an issue with the quality of the services provided by the companies affiliated with Wiseman, but he couldn’t say whether the companies’ prices were inflated.
Commissioners also ended negotiations with CDM Smith on a contract associated with the county’s solid waste operations. About a month before the kickback allegations against former county employees Jon Creighton, Wanda Greene and Mandy Stone became public, the county had recommended that commissioners select CDM Smith.
Since the firm originally designed the landfill, Wood said, county staff selected it for the operations contract based on its knowledge of the facility. “At that time, of course, we didn’t know anything about Mr. Wiseman or these allegations that have come out in the most recent indictment,” Wood said. In light of the Aug. 14 vote, the county will turn to the next qualified firm.
The board also announced it will file a civil lawsuit against Greene, Stone, Creighton, Wiseman and companies affiliated with Wiseman.
Also on Aug. 14, the county’s Audit Committee met. Buncombe County’s external auditor, the firm CliftonLarsonAllen, outlined how the schedule of this year’s external audit could change if the county undertakes a forensic audit as suggested by Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara. In a statement released on Aug. 8, she suggested that the county conduct a forensic investigation into the county’s financial practices, internal controls and organizational culture.
Auditors cautioned that, if the county decides to move forward with a forensic audit, the firm would have to put its external audit on hold until the forensic audit was complete, especially if the audit were performed by another firm. A forensic audit, representatives from CLA said, could produce additional financial data that the firm would need to evaluate as part of its audit.
As the county sorts through the new federal allegations, the possibility of additional indictments remains. Auditors said new developments could delay completion of the county’s audit. Wood said the county is considering requesting n extension of the audit submission deadline from North Carolina’s Local Government Commission. Members of the Audit Committee agreed the county should explore amending the county’s contract with CLA to expand the scope of the audit.
The external auditors also asked members of the committee who, considering the extent of staff turnover in county government in recent months, would sign the audit’s representation letter, which certifies the accuracy of the financial statements. It is typically signed by the county manager and the chief financial officer. The auditors also expressed concern about how turnover in the finance department could affect the county’s ability to get everything done on time.
While the Finance Department has lost two staffers — one accountant and former county Finance Director Tim Flora, who announced his resignation in late May — Interim Finance Director Eric Hardy said, it has gained a financial analyst.
“The department is not decimated,” Hardy said, but it is covering a lot of ground. Hardy said the department is still dealing with the implementation and maintenance of new HR and accounting software and a large volume of public records requests, which Hardy said monopolize staff time.
Having narrowed a field of 24 applicants to six, the county will interview candidates for the open finance director position on Thursday, Aug. 23, and Friday, Aug. 24. Hardy, Wood and commissioners Al Whitesides, Joe Belcher and Beach-Ferrara selected the finalists.
Having conducted similar interviews for nonprofits and in the banking world, Whitesides said this is one of the strongest applicant pools he’s seen.
“When you look at the problems we’re having, that was a concern I had: Would we get competent people to apply?” Whitesides said. “Yeah, we have.”