Bradley County mayor threatens to shut down officials' credit cards after audit uncovers problems

Sheriff's office tops list of purchases lacking proper documentation

Bradley County Mayor D. Gary Davis

In violation of policy

These are the Bradley County offices whose credit card use violated policies, either for lack of detailed receipts, unsigned charges or use in town with no explanation.Office No receipt Unsigned In-town TotalSheriff 29 111 6 146Rescue 9 33 6 48Assessor 8 15 0 23EMA 1 3 7 11Mayor 5 5 0 10Source: Comptroller’s office

SHERIFF’S OFFICE SPENDING

The Times Free Press examined credit card statements and receipts from the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office for Sheriff Eric Watson’s first year in office and found numerous questionable charges, including:› A $1,297 charge to a Massachusetts novelty shop when Watson bought 218 angel clips for BCSO staff Christmas gifts in 2014.“It would be difficult to say there is a government purpose for the use of those funds” for such a purchase,” James Arnette, director of the comptroller’s Division of Local Audit, said earlier this year.› A pair of art prints — graphics depicting lions — Watson bought at the National Law Enforcement Museum during a 2014 car-buying trip with his wife to Washington, D.C., in November 2014. Sources in the BCSO say the prints aren’t displayed in the department.› Nearly $1,000 in expenses for two extra motel nights and a rental vehicle during a law enforcement conference in Las Vegas in 2015.Watson first said the extra nights for himself and his budget director, Richard McAllister, were because they flew earlier to save money, and 854 miles on the rental car was for some “old-fashioned sightseeing” when the violent-crimes conference wasn’t in session.Later, he said the pair went early to check out clues in the disappearance of Joe Keller, the Bradley County man who disappeared in July 2105 in Colorado and whose bones were found there in January.› More than $500 to rent a car for a woman after McAllister backed his personal truck, towing a county trailer, into her vehicle in a parking lot in June 2015.Watson said he and McAllister were at Ed’s Cycles in Cleveland to pick up the BCSO’s Honda Rancher. But county records show the Honda had been sold weeks before and sources in the sheriff’s office said they were there to pick up Watson’s personal four-wheeler. The same sources said $217 in ATV accessories charged to the county credit card were for Watson’s personal use, which he denies.

Bradley County's mayor is threatening to shut down local officials' access to the county credit card after state auditors found widespread documentation problems that leave the card open for improper use.

The annual audit by the Tennessee Comptroller's Office found more than half the county credit card transactions last year lacked signatures, detailed receipts, or were used in town rather than for travel.

County employees swiped the county card 430 times in the 2015-16 fiscal year, auditors said, and 238 of those purchases lacked adequate documentation. By far the greatest number was the sheriff's office, with 146 purchases lacking either detailed receipts or signatures, or made locally with no explanation. County policy says the credit card is to be used only for travel, and any local use must be explained in writing.

The other offices dinged over credit cards were Bradley Fire Rescue (48), Property Assessor (23), Emergency Management Agency (11) and Mayor's Office (10).

The audit does not assert any improper purchases but says a lack of internal controls to prevent wrongful use of the card is a "significant deficiency."

"These violations of the county's credit card policy are the result of a lack of management oversight, which could result in unauthorized purchases," the auditors wrote.

In his response to the findings, County Mayor D. Gary Davis wrote that he sent copies of the credit card policy to the departments or officials in question and that finance officials will crack down on documentation.

"The departments that report to the county mayor will be strictly controlled and the credit card will be suspended if the policy is not followed. The elected officials have been made aware of the requirements with using a county credit card. If elected officials continue to violate the credit card policy, their card privileges may be suspended," Davis wrote.

Sheriff's office spokesman James E. Bradford Jr. said Thursday evening said the department has been working with the county finance office since being notified of the discrepancies. He said 117 purchases were resolved by getting signatures or documenting purchases, and the department has tried to track down detailed receipts for 29 purchases.

BCSO also has reviewed credit card policy with all supervisors and reminded the 260 or so employees who have access to the credit card they must keep detailed receipts, Bradford said via email.

He noted that "for three consecutive years, Bradley County Sheriff's Office has received a perfect audit through the State of Tennessee Comptroller's Office," and added the department has always worked to correct any issues raised by the mayor's office.

Questions about credit card use in the sheriff's office were part of the reason County Commissioner Dan Rawls earlier this year called for an independent investigation.

Other grounds included the sheriff apparently helping get a woman friend out of jail; conflicts of interest over Watson's wife's job as a bail bonding agent; and the sale of the county's $130,000 surveillance van to a Nashville bail bondsman for $20,000.

A special prosecutor, 4th Judicial District Attorney General Jimmy Dunn, was named in June to oversee an investigation by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and FBI.

Multiple sources told the Times Free Press that TBI agents have been interviewing BCSO personnel and others this week at their Chattanooga office.

The main part of the annual audit, released Thursday, for the most part shows a prosperous county and a financially sound government.

But the section on financial findings critical of credit card use included other findings, including a $15,818.50 cash shortage in Davis' office that auditors said was embezzled by a former employee.

The audit said the ex-worker, who was fired in July 2014, had written 70 checks to fictitious people for umpiring ballgames for the county recreation department. Those checks were deposited in the same credit union used by the employee.

That information was referred to 10th Judicial District Attorney Steve Crump, who said Thursday the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is working on the case and he expects it will be presented to a grand jury at some point.

Davis said his office has tightened up on its process for hiring contracted service providers, as well.

Auditors repeated a criticism from a past audit of the Clerk and Master and Probate Court Clerk's office. The audit said there was not enough segregation of duties among workers who maintain accounting records and receipt, deposit or dole out funds. That lack "increases the risk of unauthorized transactions," the auditors said.

They also criticized the Bradley County Commission's audit committee as dysfunctional. The audit committee is a condition of membership in the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development's ThreeStar Program to create jobs and attract industry.

The auditors said there were no minutes to show the committee met in the 2015-16 fiscal year.

"Without a functioning Audit Committee, the County Commission does not have independent and objective reviews of the financial reporting process, internal controls, the audit function, and monitoring management's plans to address various risks," the audit states.

Davis' response said Rawls, the committee chairman, tried to set up a meeting over the summer but couldn't get enough members together for a quorum.

"Chairman Rawls plans to assemble the Committee prior to summer holiday season henceforth in order to be in full compliance," Davis wrote.

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at [email protected] or 423-757-6416.