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Waste is called careless, but not criminal

September 07, 2007|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, PA. - The Franklin County Board of Commissioners said Thursday that no money was missing from a nearly $900,000 anti-smoking program, but the county still is negotiating with the state over about $50,000 in questionable expenses and unpaid bills associated with the program.

The Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office in May notified the county it had ended an investigation into the program, funded by a settlement with tobacco companies, and concluded that no criminal violations had taken place. The county employee who ran the program from 2002 to 2005 was fired two years ago and a supervisor was disciplined and subsequently retired, Commissioner G. Warren Elliott said.

"We had a long-standing employee who did have experience in these kind of programs and should have known better," Elliott said. "The employee acted carelessly, not criminally."

"There is no one still on county staff that was involved in the program," Elliott said.

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The program was administered through the Franklin/Fulton Drug and Alcohol Abuse Unit.

"We were fully prepared to prosecute" had the investigation concluded there was criminal activity, Elliott said.

In a letter to the county, the Attorney General's Office wrote that "large amounts" of public funds were wasted in the program. Court records from an appeal by the fired employee indicated she circumvented bidding procedures, hired a compliance officer without approval of the District Attorney's Office and that invoices for thousands of dollars were submitted for promotional items, concerts and compliance checks.

The court records also stated the woman hired people she knew from church, and violated child labor laws, in one case paying an 8-year-old to help at an information table and keeping teenagers out doing compliance checks at stores past 10 p.m.

"The majority of funds were spent properly" for anti-smoking education and other programs, Elliott said. Some goods and services, however, were purchased without following procedures or without providing proper documentation, he said.

The court records indicate that, for fiscal years 2002 and 2003, no invoices were submitted to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, causing the county to have to go through the former employee's records to find out how the money was spent in order to get reimbursements from the state.

"It's not that the services weren't delivered," Elliott said. In some cases, the county did not write checks to pay questionable expenses, he said.

Negotiations are continuing with the Department of Health over questionable expenses, as well as invoices the county did not pay because the expenditures were problematic, County Administrator John Hart said. The amount involved is $50,000 or less, he said.

Asked if the county could try to recover any disallowed expenditures from the fired employee, county solicitor Shawn Meyers said that cannot be done until, and if, it is determined the county has to repay funds.

"You have to have an identifiable loss, not a speculative loss" to pursue litigation, Meyers said.

The county initiated an investigation of the program more than three years ago and the employee was fired in July 2005. District Attorney John F. Nelson said Tuesday that he and Pennsylvania State Police decided to refer the matter to the Attorney General's Office because of its expertise in white-collar crime.

Commissioner Bob Thomas said the board and other county officials had been told not to comment on the investigation while it was under way.

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