Fraud effects linger in latest Buncombe County audit

RIPPLE EFFECT: The annual audit for the 2019 fiscal year found one instance of material weakness and two significant deficiencies compared to the previous year's audit which found six material weaknesses, nine significant deficiencies and one instance of noncompliance. Principal Chris Kessler, who presented the findings, said that items were carryovers from the previous year. Graphic courtesy of CliftonLarsonAllen

While the results of Buncombe County’s most recent audit showed that staff efforts to correct years of mismanagement were beginning to take hold, the report still found evidence of previous financial mishandling, members of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners were told during their Dec. 3 meeting.

The annual audit for the 2019 fiscal year, conducted by Minneapolis-based accountant firm CliftonLarsonAllen and presented by principal Chris Kessler, gave Buncombe an “unmodified opinion,” indicating no major financial misstatements were discovered. However, the accountants also noted one material weakness related to the previous year’s audit adjustments and two significant deficiencies related to internal controls and compliance measures. 

Far fewer items were flagged than in the county’s fiscal year 2018  audit, released in May. That report found six material weaknesses, nine significant deficiencies and one instance of noncompliance, which the auditors tied to fraud by former County Manager Wanda Greene and other leaders, staff turnover and the county’s implementation of a new financial system. 

The reduction in findings, Kessler said, indicated that the county’s corrective measures were working. All of the current findings, he added, were the results of prior years.   

“The corrective action plans have already been implemented by management, and these should not repeat going forward,” Kessler said. “[If] you look at the comparison between 2018 and the 2019 audits and the number of findings year to year, and you look at these three that were in 2019, they’re all carryover from 2018. … That is a very good sign for you all as governance to say that management is focused on implementing the corrective action plans and resolving findings.”

Board members voted unanimously to accept the results of the audit and praised county staff for completing the “unbelievable” task of completing two audit reports only months apart. 

“I hope everybody realizes the hard work that our employees have put into this. I spent 40 years in banking, but I’ve never seen a mess like we inherited when I become a commissioner,” Commissioner Al Whitesides said. “But thanks to the good employees that we have here at Buncombe County, we are really light-years ahead of where I thought we would be at this point in time.”

Candler resident Jerry Rice told commissioners during public comment that, while he agreed county staff had worked hard to complete the audit, previous audits had not detected more than a decade of financial abuse by former county leadership.  

“You better not be patting people on the back too quick, because that happened for years and you see what happened to Buncombe County. … It was overlooked by the oversight committee, just like you people sitting right up there,” Rice said. “So, instead of pats on the back, you need to be [the] oversight. You need to be asking more serious questions than you are.”

In other news

Board members unanimously elected Commissioner Robert Pressley to serve as the board’s vice chair, effective immediately. Pressley replaces outgoing Vice Chair Jasmine Beach-Ferrara and will serve in the position for one year. 

Commissioners also delayed choosing nine members to serve on the county’s newly established Parks, Greenways and Recreation Advisory Board after receiving 25 applications. Board Chair Brownie Newman asked board members to narrow their choices down to top candidates to interview at a later date.

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