Thursday, August 06, 2015

Analysis of Sheriff's Dept response to 2014 Audit Report and related

As is documented within this blog under the post "Presidio County Commissioners Court meeting 7/28/2015" I attended and took my own shorthand-style notes on the meeting and then posted them, unedited. Now that I have had a chance to digest other happenings, statements and the general defensive approach from the Sheriff's Office related to the findings of the unanimously approved and accepted 2014 County Audit, I am ready to make some very (relatively) short comments on what was said (and the accusations and confessions made) at Commissioners Court by Chief Deputy Joel Nunez and Sheriff Danny Dominguez last Tuesday. What was not said was as important as the way things were stated in a prepared lengthy statement by Mr. Nunez, who was cited for "multiple complex conflicts of interest" in both administering and receiving Federal grant monies on behalf of the PISD police, where he is Chief, and through the Sheriff's Office, where he facilitated the initiation of the grants to his other agency.

Once again, remember that the statements below are my own and reflect my opinions on the facts surrounding how and why we, as a County, are involved in controversy in the first place.

First of all, let it be clear that in no way am I or, in my estimation, any of the Commissioners Court or other County officials questioning the value of the work the PCSO does in the Presidio area. Their service to the people who call in is clear, and there were people who spoke from the heart in support of their abilities as public servants. Unfortunately, this fact is probably lost a lot of the of the time in discussions of fiscal responsibilities and fiscal ethics with regard to Federal grant funds, reporting and integrity of grant-related expenditures. I appreciate the constituents' regard for their law enforcement officers' abilities and do not want to make it seem like I am questioning the competency of their being peace officers.

So, going forward, the Chief Deputy had a room full of supporters, many who were connected with him via the two separate governmental departments he works for. One, he is the head of and the other the de facto head of in the Presidio area. Many who were there were local citizen leaders. Most spoke in favor of his officers, and some "passed" their allotted three minutes of commentary time over to him. At which time it was Mr. Nunez's turn to speak on his behalf, County Clerk Virgie Pallarez clarified that "passing minutes" over to another person wasn't permitted, yet she was overruled by Judge Guevara, who, like everyone else in the room, I believe, wanted to hear what Joel had to say about the Audit Report and its findings implicating him in, at least, "complex multiple conflicts of interest" and also "fraudulent charges" to grant program monies. Which according to the audit, leaves the County liable for over $64,000 in reimbursements on behalf of PISD-DPS to the Department of Homeland Security.
What followed was an approximately 15 minute speech in which, as described in abbreviated terms in the previously referenced post, he defended his own actions, vilified Commissioners Court, accused the Auditor of incompetence and acting in bad faith, questioned the hiring of Katie Sanchez, accused unspecified elected official(s) in office for 7 months or less of "showing off for friends" and numerous other things. It was, at the least, interesting, and in listening carefully, I gleaned a message of defiance and obfuscating of responsibility for basic employee/employer definitions as well as at least one confession of violation of County policy.

Once Deputy Nunez completed his stand at the dais, Sheriff Danny Dominguez made an assertive and terse statement regarding his disappointment with virtually everyone in County government excepting his own employees.

I will dissect these statements here in my own words (and shaped by my own opinions) to try to relate them to the reality of the aftermath of a bruising Audit with these two individuals at the center of controversy.

Mr. Nunez began his speech with a short recap of his assistance in taking the PCSO from substandard cars, equipment and service to the community along with the Sheriff to a level of service that is respected and effective. He also referenced his being integral to the formation of the PISD-DPS, which came to be at a time when the school system in Presidio was in desperate need of law enforcement presence. He stressed his accomplishments in both law enforcement and community activism and went on to say that he is deeply offended by any accusations of any unethical or illegal behavior and wants to face his accusers directly to set the record straight.
And that's the preface to the next...

First off, he accuses the Audit Report of being sub-standard and the auditor of operating in bad faith, asking for things that would set him up to fail, including random invoices and other items that were not pertinent to operations or anything else. - A point here; I felt a bit taken aback when I first got the auditors list of items that needed to be pulled from my office- it was a pain and seemingly random. My office spent about 2 days getting the materials together to comply, but we did finish it.

Deputy Nunez then went on to scold the Commissioners Court for hiring this particular Auditor.

The next point was with regard to Commissioners Court Office of Management and Budget officer Katie Sanchez, who has been working since last December. She had been the candidate for County Treasurer versus Frances Garcia in the primary last year, and lost. She now works hand on hand with Treasurer Garcia to manage finances in compliance with Commissioners Court directives and answers to them exclusively. In another indirect attack towards the Commissioners and County Judge he questioned court and said, "What is the purpose of voting in this County?", referencing Sanchez's loss at the polls as a rejection of her qualifications for employment. There was no direct reference to why there was an attack on Sanchez, but I can tell you here that Katie has been at odds with the Sheriff's Office with regard to following official purchasing policy since she began working.
Next we listened to a long diatribe regarding officers being certified and licensed. "Has proof". Nobody ever accused anyone working for PISD, PCSO or under Stonegarden as being unlicensed or uncertified. Period.
Then we heard about his efforts to protect confidential sensitive information, such as employees' social security numbers, and that people in the Courthouse had left sensitive documents in an unsecured copy room. Says he is concerned about accountability from courthouse officials and is doing his best to counteract security risks pertaining to information (transparency?). He goes on to say that at every turn he shares any and all information with the press voluntarily (that week he did as a proactive measure- very rare from this Sheriff's Office in any case, ask any employee or member of any press agency). He states that some elected officials have "piled on to make themselves popular with the public" and he "welcomes any investigation from any agency." "Nobody has taken the time to answer his questions."

"I have great support from the City of Presidio, Border Patrol" Complains about inadequate personnel in the Sheriff's Office (overtime?!) and that the grants were "helping us save tax dollars."

Then he goes on to say that "yes, surplus vehicles have been given to other entities. Gifted to other entities, saving all of us money." This is one of my favorite statements he made this day; basically telling the Commissioners Court that he was and is a better arbiter than they are of where and to whom County property, be it purchased through County funds or grant funding originally, be distributed to for the betterment of society. County property which not only belongs to the County, but is not even under his own supervision as he is an employee of the County, not an elected official, not a department head, not tasked or permitted to give away public assets to anyone. One might suspect that a degree of his support from his local community comes from the value of those part and parcel gifts of extraordinary value and use. Regardless, I know that if I wind up giving my Windows 7 computer to the City of Marfa "for the betterment of the community" since my budget or a grant may include a new one for me that I would face a serious inquiry, even as a department head. So who gets the trucks? We know his other employer got at least two in the last year; that might help come performance review time... Others? Not yet determined at this writing...
It's all justified in his next statement; that Federal grant monies were used to get vehicles, and that other County officials (exactly the ones who are asking questions now and whom he is furious with?) are the checks and balances. "So now after 15 years am I all of a sudden now being questioned as to whether I can work here?" Suddenly someone is writing about it.
Then he goes on to claim the Commissioners Court has gone against him and the Sheriff's Office "at every turn in this case" and that he was "never asked for clarification". He defiantly refuses to "get in a social media battle" (surely referring to this blog's publishing of facts first and now, opinions and commentary) "with an elected official who is posting accusations on Facebook (links to this blog) to look good for his friends"  (Just a word here- my friends care about this only enough to know it exists, most of them would never read anywhere near this far- unfortunately.)
And then he accuses the Commissioners Court of being wasteful and irresponsible by hiring inventory cataloging and tracking company RCI to (finally) get a hold on County property asset count and valuation. Calls it a "Mickey Mouse operation" and a waste of money and abdication of departmental responsibility to handle their own inventory. (Since that has worked so well, especially with things like vehicles and trailers just exiting the County's possessions unknown over the last few years!) He finishes his session by requesting for any Executive Session regarding him to be held in public. Some debate ensues and Judge Guevara eventually states that Executive Session does not just concern him and cannot be made public.

Danny Dominguez comes before the Court in a rare speaking appearance. He goes on about the history of how the Sheriff's Office is/was trying to help the County by using Homeland Security grants to increase funding, coverage, resources, at no cost to the County, help officer retention with the ability for overtime, improve services (I have no argument with any of this, by the way, as a concept and a reality when done properly). He says that from 2005 onwards his office ran grants with "no problems". "All of a sudden there is a problem!" He doesn't take any accusations lightly. He relays that he is very upset with officials. "You don't trust us?" Bases confusion on a "Mickey Mouse rumor on Facebook... a real shame..." He is "very disappointed" and he wishes and hopes the current elected officials can "get it together and fix this problem". Says the "rumors are from people who have no idea what's going on, most who have been here a short time" (If you do the math, the group of officials that has been here the least amount of time are myself, Frances Garcia, and Loretto Vasquez- that's all.)  Danny then says he "has invited FBI and Rangers to do a full scale investigation on operations."

At this point in time, since this is the Citizen Comment period, technically, as per the Texas Open Meetings Act, Commissioners are not permitted to act on anything discussed and very limited comments or questions are permitted, since this item is not on any posted agenda for this meeting. However, several Commissioners ask some questions and get some responses from Deputy Nunez.

First off, Commissioner Hernandez asks whether the PISD officers receiving Stonegarden overtime grant funds are employees and whether the Audit says they weren't (which it did state they were not, confirmed via email with PISD's HR dept). Joel then states they were not necessarily employees but are contracted and paid by Stonegarden. (An aside here- Stonegarden funding reimbursements are only for overtime hours- period. And if there are no regular hours can there be overtime hours? Can there be?) Joel then goes on to say that the "auditor never asked us. He lied to us." Says auditor saw time sheets, log, etc. Joel says he was not in charge, not grant administrator for the PISD hours, reimbursements, etc. The "licenses are proof of being Officers" (no argument there, again). "Words mean different things; being hired... there are different levels, words don't describe." Then he goes on to explain that each of his officers receiving the Stonegarden overtime reimbursements on the time sheets he authorized for reimbursement with PISD through the County's grant program works for multiple agencies (such as Presidio EMS, Fire, City Police, etc) and is of great service to the community as public servants. Brings up Marfa ISD hiring Z Hernandez in 2014; auditor wanted receipts for training, hotel gas, etc. Could not produce, auditor immediately jumped to "fraud", but the documents didn't exist. Lorenzo then asks of officers are usually paid for training. Joel says that they usually are, yes.

An aside here from me- this was another moment of clarity for me. I have seen the documents from the PISD HR dept confirming that multiple people turning in hours that DHS Stonegarden Grant reimbursed for "overtime hours" under the parameters of the program, through Presidio County, in conjunction with PISD-DPS as a named "friendly force" were not employed part-time or full-time or on contract with PISD.
Quoting the email directly between Raquel Baeza of PISD and Presidio County outside Auditor Doak Painter;
"There are no contracts with any of those people. they are not set up as full time or part-time employees."
 "Presidio ISD did not pay for any training under Stone Garden."
"Presidio ISD did not pay for any travel under Stone Garden."
"The Stone Garden Program is managed by Joel Nunez, the Presidio ISD Police Chief. He is responsible for submitting invoices for reimbursements of payroll costs pais by Presidio ISD, The Stone Garden Program participants submit time sheets to the Presidio ISD Business Office Payroll Department and are paid on a biweekly basis. An account distribution journal is provided to the security department upon request for preparation of the invoices, the reimbursement checks from Presidio County are recorded as revenue received from local sources."

So the way I read this is that Deputy Nunez decided that qualified employees of other area agencies would be able to receive additional income (and provide services) free of charge to local taxpayers by working their regular hours on whatever jobs they had, and then turning in Overtime hours for reimbursement through the Stonegarden Federal grants without actually working PISD REGULAR hours. Lets remember, people, that nobody in the USA that I know can get overtime (time and a half pay, by the way) without first working a 40 hour week. For some law enforcement, it may be 42 or 43 hours, I can't remember, but let's just say 40.
So, if I work 40 hours for City of Presidio Police Dept and have an offer to work 15 hours for overtime with PISD under Stonegarden reimbursement, which costs PISD nothing, what's the harm?
Well, it's illegal. Straight up. Period.
I worked at Popeyes Fried Chicken in high school and the guy who prepped the birds for frying worked about 38 hours a week at Popeyes and about 30 hours a week one half block down at Mr. Bake-A-Tater. Did he receive overtime at either place despite working nearly 70 hours a week in the same neighborhood, serving the same people, doing essentially the same job? NO.
Based on everything I can glean, from time sheets to emails to pay stubs with regard to what Joel was running here, there were little to no regular hours worked for PISD by these certain people mentioned in the audit, and the reason why the County is on the hook for nearly $65,000 of wages in FY 2014 is because Deputy Nunez determined that they had fulfilled the qualifications for regular employment through their certifications as peace officers and their hours serving the community with other agencies and were, in his mind, eligible for "overtime" as PISD off the books wage earners through a Federal Grant program for reimbursements for overtime only.  I see this as unethical and illegal, despite bringing money into the community (see Big Bend Sentinel article on same, 7/30/2015). This is, of course, still just my best assumption on how this all "worked" at this point.

We're still not done!

After all this, Commissioner Aranda says he really doesn't appreciate the rumors from the Sheriff's Office. Says "Commissioners never went against you guys. The Auditor has been hired to do a job, and the conclusions are there." Judge Guevara tells everyone that the "public discussion is over."
Commissioner Hernandez mentions that he, like Joel, wants the Executive Session to be in public. Judge once again says no because of other employee issues. Judge Guevara goes on to say that the Sheriff's Office was given all the audit info prior to it coming out in public and a chance to address anything before a public issue could arise. The Sheriff declined to participate at that time "We won't be there" he said.  The Judge goes on to say that Joel and Danny could have come into her office at any time to discuss this. Any time. Door was open, invitation given. Judge says that by law we have to have an external auditor and these are his findings. Joel once again accuses Commissioners of hiring a "very poor auditor who does not do his job right." (aside- this is the first time in three years of observation I felt like we had more than a whitewash audit- AND- this County's performance over the years is so bad that most reputable CPA's won't touch us.)
Commissioner Aranda gets pretty vocal at this time and asks Joel why he didn't just "call and have this item put on the agenda?" "Anytime is fine". Joel says "open session is the only way to do this." (aside- so why not put it on the agenda so the public, not just your supporters, will know?)
Joel states he would "like to have a workshop with individuals who have 7 months or less experience." to explain how things are. Also says that "certain elected officials are blowing this out of proportion because of their lack of experience and knowledge of our situation."

I like the term "our situation" in this context.

Lastly, later in the meeting Commissioner Hernandez shows he is taking accusations of incompetence and disloyalty from the Sheriff and Deputy Nunez seriously when he asks to be part of any solution.
Let's note once again that these are not policing issues, but financial transparency and accountability issues exclusively.
Commissioner Hernandez states his frustration with the situation at large by pushing for full Commissioners Court involvement in dealing with these issues from here on out since the full Court is being held accountable by the Sheriff's Office. The Judge offers time in her office every Wed with Commissioners Court Internal Auditor Patty Roach. Invites everyone to participate. Comm. Aranda says the answers are in the Auditors report and recommended remedies. Says it's more administrative and policies via the Court have already been set. Up to dept heads and OMB/Treasurer to enforce, stick with it/ fix it. Hernandez repeats desire to be involved directly. Judge repeats here offer of any and all Wednesdays with Patty Roach. End of discussion.


So, before I dive into my analysis of the newspaper's theories about all this - and I will- (which 6 years ago I would have wholeheartedly agreed with but now I have seen this in two separate instances come back to bite us) I will say that the underlying issue may be that our society in Presidio County looks at Federal money as something we deserve as an historically under-served  population and that any ethics connected to this process are outweighed by the benefits of more dollars in the form of wages, trucks, and equipment into our collective pockets. This I see and understand, but if we are to aspire to ethically sound, transparent, honest and legal public government (think NOT Mexico), we must hold ourselves to a higher standard, especially when tempted.
I believe Joel Nunez when he says he was trying to do his best to not have trucks sold for $5000-$7000 when they could help his fellow law enforcement or school buddies in a more direct sense.I get it, but it's not his property or under his fiscal purview. Got it also that he believes his colleagues work hard and that the money is there for the taking. Sign a sheet, do a patrol, saves local taxpayers money, helps everyone make a living, more police on patrol. Yes, but illegal.
The fact that this blog is the "cause of the problems" is the most distressing thing to me. The fact that the people who enforce our laws, patrol out streets, decide whether to pull us over, give us a warning or a ticket and/or take us to jail are not able to accept the reality of these audit findings and their role on these deficiencies is disturbing.

Thanks for reading. I promise I will be covering Presidio County finances and politics from here on out. CLEARLY this is long overdue.


DanD said...

I read the whole thing.

Gretel said...

Thank you for devoting your time to this, and thanks also for honoring multiple perspectives.

KRE said...

Another thanks for this + especially for doing the math on the $64,000 that isn't going to be reimbursed. It's not super clear reading the audit as a non-finance person why the numbers don't add up, but it's pretty clear the county ends up in the negative.

It also isn't clear to me whether the money can't be reimbursed because paperwork wasn't filed on time within a year, or whether it's just because you can't file paperwork you don't have, or you can't file paperwork for things that are flagged as fraudulent or conflict of interest? Or all three? Reading the audit my impression was mainly that paperwork wasn't filed but you know, the audit's pretty long and I don't have a lot of practice reading county audits.