Voters in Hearne may get to impose a forensic audit on City Hall, and that could ultimately send some city officials to prison. Around 1:30 p.m. this afternoon, proponents of the audit submitted initiative petitions that would would require the city to spend up to $120,000 on the audit.
Former Mayor Milton Johnson, Councilwoman Shirley Harris, and council candidates Rodrick Jackson and Martha Castelija gathered 517 signatures to put the proposed ordinance on the May 7, 2016 ballot, and county election officials must now certify the signatures. If approved by a majority of voters, the ordinance would allow Robertson County District Attorney Coty Siegert to select the auditor (full disclosure: I drafted the ordinance).
Mr. Siegert seized thousands of pages of financial records from the City of Hearne and its banks, but he told me last Fall that his office lacked the expertise to track all of the funds. A forensic audit would solve that problem, and the audit results would also be provided to the FBI.
In a recent message to Mr. Jackson, City Attorney Bryan F. “Rusty” Russ, Jr. claimed that the city’s funds are already audited annually and the auditors have found no problems with the city’s finances. That argument cuts both ways. According to Councilwoman Harris, the auditors are instructed not to investigate expenditures of less than $50,000. That would explain why the current auditors failed to detect the fact that Councilman Michael “Sticky Fingers” Werlinger received hundreds of dollars worth of football tickets that were purchased with taxpayer funds, or the fact that city officials spent taxpayer funds to buy flat-screen televisions, video games, etc. as Christmas gifts.
It would also explain why the auditors failed to detect City Manager Pee Wee Drake’s misappropriation of thousands of dollars in salary payments to a jailed city employee. Mr. Drake was later indicted for mishandling city funds, and last week he entered a plea agreement to repay the money plus a $1,000 court fee.
While that financial malfeasance is bad enough, I suspect it is only the tip of the iceberg. Hearne has far higher utility rates than any surrounding community, and there is anecdotal evidence that city officials increase the utility bills of their political enemies and reduce (or eliminate) the bills of their friends and family. It’s long past time to figure out (1) why electricity costs so much more in Hearne, and (2) where all the money goes.
As I first reported back in September, Mr. Jackson obtained records showing that Mayor Ruben Gomez’s sister had written almost $50,000 worth of hot checks for her utility bills, but her electricity had never been disconnected. Around the same time that Mr. Jackson requested those records, his electricity was arbitrarily disconnected even though he fully paid his utility bill, then city officials waited more than 24 hours (in triple-digit weather) to reconnect it.
If city officials are tampering with utility bills, as they appear to be, then they could face federal charges. For example, if a fraudulent bill was mailed to a customer just once, that would be mail fraud punishable by up to 20 years in prison. And if the Booger County Mafia did it twice or more in a ten-year period, then the participants could face federal racketeering charges.
The best way to shut down the Booger County Mafia is also the best way to shut down the Sicilian mafia, i.e., start putting the mafioso behind bars. The next best way is to start voting them out of office. I previously represented Councilwomen Hazel Embra, Joyce Rattler, and LaShunda White, all of whom ran for office as reformers, but shortly after they gained a majority they were bought off by Mayor Gomez and the rest of the Booger County Mafia.
Ms. Rattler and Ms. White will be on the May 7 ballot, as will “Sticky Fingers” Werlinger. It’s time to throw the bums out. Or in Mr. Werlinger’s case, it’s time to throw the bum out again.