Cheating taxpayers at work

Cheating taxpayers at work

October 3rd, 2010 in Opinion Times

When employees of local government pursue their private business interests while they are supposed to be at work for the taxpayers, they generally are cheating taxpayers. The same could be said about the elected officials who effectively wink at such improper conduct when it finally comes to light, as has happened here in two such cases - one involving a city administrator and one of her staff, the other involving a superintendent in the county's Public Works Department.

The most egregious case, reported Wednesday by this paper's Dan Whisenhunt, centers on the business run by Alan Knowles, a county public works superintendent who also is the son of Hamilton County Clerk Bill Knowles. Alan Knowles, whose county salary is $64,555, has earned $157,345 over the past three years as president of Dove Ministries, a nonprofit firm doing business as DMI Concerts. The business, which he and other relatives operate, arranges Christian-music concerts in the Chattanooga area, including concert venues and travel, lodging and meals for the performers.

The concert business

A series of e-mails obtained by this newspaper shows that Alan Knowles regularly handled work for DMI Concerts on county time and using county computers. These e-mails also reveal how the firm handled a 2009 IRS audit that charged Knowles and DMI $8,000 in unpaid taxes and penalties related to the use of DMI vehicles.

Another e-mail on the county's computer system shows that Knowles conducted an online election on his county computer for new board members after the IRS found that DMI's board required more diversity. Among board members included in that online election were Alan Knowles' sister, Reba Kunselman, and brother, Finley Knowles, the chief administrator of Bill Knowles' County Clerk's office. Finley Knowles participated in the election on a county computer.

The county's public works administrator, Dan Wade, last week gave Alan Knowles a formal written warning for failure to follow county employment policies that prohibit private work and county computer use while on the job.

"That's the only thing we can do other than fire him or suspend him," (emphasis ours) Wade told Whisenhunt. "It's just a failure to follow procedure."

That remark is illuminating. It admits that firing Knowles is an option, but that Wade and/or his boss, County Mayor Claude Ramsey, view Knowles' use of county time and computers to run his DMI business simply as "just a failure to follow procedure" - and not a prolonged offense that merits termination.

Mayor Ramsey admitted to Whisenhunt that he had not reviewed Alan Knowles' e-mail exchanges and said he would "deal with this," but not immediately. Several county commissioners, when asked about Alan Knowles' business activities on county time, were equally vague.

Politics could shade the issue. It also raises a tangential problem in county government with nepotism. Bill Knowles, now in his 10th term as county clerk, has three relatives working in his office: son Finley, the chief administrative deputy clerk (salary, $82,381); son-in-law Don Kunselman, director of inventory controls (salary, $58,130); and grandson Brett Kunselman, motor-vehicle utility and mail specialist (salary, $30,833).

The county clerk's recent move from the Democratic to the Republican Party is widely seen as a way, in a predominately Republican hierarchy in county government, to help his son, Finley, succeed him in office. That political arc also could be seen as a reason for the light reprimand given his son, Alan, in public works.

A website magazine

The issue at City Hall over Missy Crutchfield's on-the-job pursuit of her private, online Be Magazine, raises similar concerns. Crutchfield, administrator of the city's Department of Education, Arts & Culture, and her administrative aide, Melissa Turner, were warned by Mayor Littlefield last week to stop working on city time on their website magazine and to discontinue its use for cross-over marketing for the department's events - but only after this paper's report by Cliff Hightower raised the issue.

Crutchfield maintains that she developed the magazine to help market her department's programs. Supporters give her credit for that. Still, she could have avoided the apparent conflict of interest by establishing the magazine as a departmental vehicle. As a private, for-profit magazine, it puts Crutchfield in a clear conflict, especially if the magazine were actually to earn revenue.

The City Council's proposed audit review should affirm the distinction and issue a clear guideline to avoid work on private businesses on taxpayers' time and resources.

This isn't a complex or difficult issue. Taxpayers' interest should prevail in public bureaucracies. Mayors and their department chiefs should make sure it does - without equivocation and favoritism.