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Report: Anti-smoking program funds 'wasted'

September 05, 2007|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - An investigation by the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office concluded that "large amounts of public funds were wasted," but no criminal violations were found in the operation of a state-funded anti-smoking program administered by Franklin County.

Invoices for tens of thousands of dollars were submitted for promotional items and a concert, as well as compliance checks using teenagers to investigate whether businesses sold tobacco to minors, according to a court ruling related to the firing of the program's manager.

"After an extensive investigation ... it does not appear that it would be possible to prosecute anyone for any criminal violations. There is no question that large amounts of public funds were wasted during the operation of the tobacco compliance program," stated the May 3 letter to the county from Senior Deputy Attorney General George R. Zaiser.

The letter stated that a former county employee picked to run the program was "completely unqualified to handle such large amounts of public funds," but the investigation was unable to show she personally profited from the program.

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"As far as we know, it's over with the attorney general," County Commissioner Bob Thomas said Tuesday. "A lot of people looked at this thing, and what they found were some poor choices."

"We've done everything at the county level we can do at this point," County Controller Carol Fix Diller said. When her office found questionable expenses about three years ago, she notified the District Attorney's Office, and there were subsequent meetings with Pennsylvania State Police and the state Attorney General's and Auditor General's offices, she said.

District Attorney John F. Nelson said his office and state police decided to refer the case to the Attorney General's Office "because of them having the resources to do that kind of white-collar investigation."

The former program supervisor, who worked for the Franklin/Fulton County Drug and Alcohol Abuse Unit, petitioned Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court for a review of an order by the State Civil Service Commission upholding her firing. The opinion, issued in April by Judge James Gardner Colins, stated the county had just cause to fire her, but failed to follow proper procedures, and reaffirmed the commission ruling awarding her wages for a period from her July 2005 firing to Sept. 27, 2005.

The commission and court rulings detailed how some of the $896,862 in tobacco settlement money the county received between 2002 and 2005 from the Pennsylvania Department of Health was spent. That included $52,264.40 in "'promotional items, such as DVDs, boom boxes, cameras, home theatre (sic) system, camcorders' ... for which the Department declined to reimburse the County," the court ruling stated.

One issue cited by the court was that the county did not submit any invoices to the Department of Health for tobacco program expenditures for "the fiscal years 2002 through 2003." The court opinion also stated she failed to follow proper competitive bidding procedures for improvements made to a nonprofit organization's building.

The court's opinion stated the supervisor "engaged an acquaintance" from her church to organize a "Safe Summer" event, who later submitted $17,000 in invoices that failed to detail how the purchases related to the anti-tobacco program. The man returned the $17,000, the opinion stated.

The same man submitted an invoice to the county for $30,500 for a "Salvador Concert," including $5,000 for prizes and $3,500 for promotions, for which the county was reimbursed, the opinion stated.

The supervisor hired another church acquaintance to do compliance checks at stores for $25 a site, the opinion stated. However, she failed to follow a directive from Nelson to first get the approval of magisterial district judges, instead telling them the man had been appointed a special detective by Nelson, Colins wrote.

While not authorized to issue citations, the man did compliance checks - in uniform and with a badge - that required at least one juvenile and a supervising adult. The appeal of the supervisor's dismissal to the commission stated the man once used his wife as an adult supervisor and, on another occasion, his daughter as a "youth inspector."

The commission ruling indicated the girl was paid $340 for 34 compliance checks on one day in 2003. A footnote to the commission ruling, however, states the county might have balked at paying all of the youth inspector invoices.

Colins cited violations of child labor law for working teenagers past 10 p.m. The opinion cited an instance on June 5, 2003, in which youths conducted 30 compliance checks between 6:45 and 11:36 p.m.

In another instance, the supervisor hired the 8-year-old daughter of a friend to help at an event in 2003, paying the girl $10 an hour.

"I'm not saying there weren't irregularities. There were," Thomas said. "But those poor choices were discovered by the system put in place to find them ... the county's checks and balances system."

Thomas said some promotional items purchased were used as incentives to get youths to sign pledges not to smoke or drink alcohol. Management of the tobacco program later was contracted to Summit Health, he said.

Telephone messages to the Attorney General's and Auditor General's offices were not returned Tuesday.

Diller said Tuesday she did not know whether the county will have to pay the state back for any expenses related to the tobacco program for which it was reimbursed.

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