County’s audit overdue; state withholding funds

WINNSBORO – The SC Comptroller General’s office notified the county’s financial department on Jan. 3, 2023, that the county’s audit was overdue and that the state would begin withholding funds from the county that day.

While they were aware the audit was late, Council Chair Douglas Pauley, Vice Chair Clarence Gilbert and council members Peggy Swearingen, Dan Ruff, and Shirley Green told The Voice two weeks later, on Jan. 17, that the information that the comptroller’s office was withholding funds was never passed along to them. The Voice was unable to reach councilmen Neil Robinson and Tim Roseborough.

“We have not yet received your county’s audited financial statements,” Senior Assistant Comptroller General Ronnie Head wrote in an email to the county’s Comptroller Anne Bass.  “As you are aware, SC Code of Laws (section 4-9-150) requires that you provide your audited statements to our office no later than yesterday [Jan 2, 2023].

“As this deadline was not met,” Head continued, “it will leave our office with no other option than to begin withholding state payments to your county beginning today [Jan. 3, 2023], pending receipt of a copy of these audited financial statements.”

Head concluded that, “Issuing timely financial statements and making them conveniently accessible to citizens are important qualities for maintaining public confidence in government.”

The Voice acquired this email and others between county officials and the SC Comptroller’s office through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

Bass replied to Head that same day, copying Deputy Administrator Synithia Williams and County Administrator Malik Whitaker, that, “In communication with our audit firm, we should have the draft in the next week or two. We will send it immediately when it is ready.”

However, by Jan. 17, the Comptroller General’s office had not yet received it.

It is the second consecutive year that the county has been late submitting its annual audit.

Last year, Council chair Moses Bell blamed employees for the late audit, saying he didn’t think the public should have been informed about why Fairfield County failed to properly submit a financial audit or how it spends taxpayer money.

“This was a personnel issue and I felt that it shouldn’t be in the public,” Bell said.

Those remarks came in response to the county missing multiple audit deadlines, prompting the state to withhold over $1.5M from the county.

Bell blamed the former interim administrator for failing to file the audit on time.

The chairman also bemoaned that email communications about the audit predicament between former County Administrator Malik Whitaker and council had been shared with The Voice newspaper.

In what appeared to be an effort to keep this information from the public, Whitaker wrote across the top of the email:  “Please note that these emails should only be between council members and Mr. Whitaker.”

Budgetary communications between the administrator and council members are, however, considered public records under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The FOIA defines public record as “all books, papers, maps, photographs, cards, tapes, recordings, or other documentary materials regardless of physical form or characteristics prepared, owned, used, in the possession of, or retained by a public body.”

When the Voice publisher asked Bell in a phone interview about the Nov. 19, 2021 letter he received from the Comptroller General about the audit, Bell abruptly said he had to go to a meeting and the phone line went dead.

On Feb. 1, 2022 Whitaker informed council members via email that the annual audit was six months in arrears, characterizing it as a “mini-crisis situation.”

Whitaker forwarded a Feb. 1 email from the county’s auditor, Elliot Davis, that warned state payments to the county were in jeopardy, but Whitaker noted he was developing an action plan to complete the audit.

Warning signs, however, were evident much sooner.

Councilman Doug Pauley said that as early as Nov. 19, 2021, the State Comptroller General’s Office warned Bell about the deadline for the audit and enclosed a copy of the S.C. Code Section 4-9-150, which, Eckstrom wrote, “addresses a county council’s vital responsibility to assure that its county’s financial statements are audited each fiscal year by an independent auditing firm.

“This Code Section also requires the county to provide my office a copy of the annual audit report ‘no later than January first each year following the close of the previous fiscal year,’” Eckstrom continued. “Based on that requirement, the deadline will be January 1, 2022, for a county to provide the state a copy of its audited June 30, 2021, financial statements.

Pauley said the state followed up on Jan. 4, setting a deadline of Jan. 21 to file the audit, which the county missed.

“We didn’t hear anything on Jan. 4, and we didn’t hear anything on January 21,” Pauley said. “The council was not notified until the first week of February.”

Bell confirmed receiving the Nov. 19 letter and Jan. 4 email. But he said completing the audit was a staff function, not a council chairman function, and that announcing the late audit and withholding of funds “would display the performance of our finance department leadership in public view.”

Pauley told The Voice last week that Bass will present a report on the county’s finances at the Jan. 23 council meeting.

Comments

  1. Mike Bell says

    Don’t worry Johnson is back to save the day! lol Just wait and see Mr. Pauley and Gilbert.

  2. Is anybody surprised by the fact Whitaker skipped town without doing the work he was responsible for, and “paid” to do? At least this time around, we don’t have a county council working diligently to hide the ineptness of certain county officials from the public. While disappointing to learn we are late again, I have every confidence in Anne Bass and Laura Johnson’s (welcome back) ability to get our county government working in an efficient and timely manner again. I’m also confident that the newly elected council members will stay abreast of this and, unlike the previous council, will communicate openly with county residents about the status of “OUR” business. Let’s look forward and not backwards.

  3. Marcus Polk says

    Blame the previous Administrator (Whitaker). That’s how former Chairman Bell would have done it.

  4. Jeff Schaffer says

    We have to blame ourselves… We elect these people to run this county for the benefit of us all. Or our demise! We need to be vigilant they are just people like you and me and will error from time to time. It is our responsibility to hold them accountable for inappropriate actions. We can do that at council meetings and at the polls in Nov.

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