Audits of Davis County Sheriff Office reveal time card fraud, $862 hotel stay

Tuesday , October 03, 2017 - 12:00 AM2 comments

MARK SHENEFELT, Standard-Examiner Staff

FARMINGTON — Auditors concluded the Davis County Sheriff’s Office committed time card fraud, spent unauthorized and wasteful sums on travel and hotels and improperly accounted for jail inmates’ personal funds, according to audit findings.

The time card audit, triggered by a tip from a whistleblower, resulted in a criminal investigation by the Utah Attorney General’s Office. At least two other instances of alleged misuse of funds addressed in the audits have been under criminal investigation as well.

The audit revelations come at a time of heightened conflict among four Davis County elected offices — the sheriff, the county attorney, the commission and the clerk-auditor — all Republicans.

Interviews with officials and a review of audit documents illuminate several controversies that center on the sheriff’s office and alternately pit one office against another.

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Disclosure of the audits follows more than a year of close public scrutiny of the sheriff’s office over a spate of deaths in the county jail — six in 2016, 25 percent of the statewide total.

The Standard-Examiner obtained copies of five audits of the Sheriff’s Office covering incidents from 2013 through 2016, all during Sheriff Todd Richardson’s tenure. All but one probe resulted from whistleblower reports or the public’s tips to auditors. One was flagged by a Clerk-Auditor’s Office employee while reviewing credit card transactions.

Here are the key findings, according to audit reports by the Clerk-Auditor’s Office: 

  • A sheriff’s detective took at least several days off as vacation in 2016 but reported them as straight time. The false time cards were signed by Richardson, who had promised the detective a veteran officer’s vacation time accrual rate when he was hired away from Layton. The audit rapped Richardson for deceptive hiring practices and said the time card falsity was “a violation of county policy and reflects a culture of ‘favorites’” in the sheriff’s office.  
  • On two occasions, sheriff’s deputies who fired on suspects in the line of duty were sent away on out-of-town, county-paid hotel stays on the justification they needed to decompress. One deputy was put up for two nights in a luxury hot tub suite at Stein Eriksen Lodge in Deer Valley at a cost of $862. 
  • Questionable expenses were submitted in 2016 and 2017 by sheriff’s deputies who traveled to attend events honoring fallen police officers. A deputy was offered the sheriff’s office’s ATV, truck and trailer to take to an ATV ride in Southern Utah, but at greater cost to the county, she took her own rig because she “felt more comfortable.” 
  • A senior sheriff’s deputy in summer 2013 summoned a colleague to drive to Cache County to meet him after he suffered a medical problem while vacationing at Bear Lake. Auditors said at least one county vehicle and one on-duty officer’s time was spent on the private matter. Auditors also cited “potential unauthorized use of paramedic equipment and medications” on the ill deputy.
  • Jailers did not account for cash dropped off for inmates at the jail work center by family members. Auditors recommended an accounting and receipt procedure be established “as evidence to all parties that the cash was distributed appropriately.” The practice was reported by the father of an inmate who asked for but was not given a receipt for the cash he left for his daughter.

Fallout from the audits has included a sharply worded memo from the County Commission to Richardson; renewed criticism of Richardson by County Attorney Troy Rawlings; and an urging by Clerk-Auditor Curtis Koch to the commission to do something about the spending on hotels.

Foreshadowing similar conclusions in the later audits, the 2014 audit called for a review of the conflicts between the sheriff’s office and the county’s policies, procedures and ordinances and “Necessary changes so that there is written sheriff’s compliance with county policies, procedures and ordinances.”

SHERIFF’S RESPONSE

In an interview at his Farmington office, Richardson disputed some of the audit findings and struck back with criticisms of his own.

He scoffed at the accusations of fraud and deceptive hiring, saying the time reporting and benefits issue is to blame in part on turnover in the county human resources office and foot-dragging by the commission to fund a dedicated human resources worker in the sheriff’s office.

During the time card episode, Richardson said he was managing 708 full-time, part-time and contract personnel. Finally, this year his office got the HR help he had requested.

Richardson denied any intent of time card fraud. He admitted to not doing the proper paperwork to explain a decision to have the officer on paid administrative leave.

Auditors wrote that Richardson told them the detective’s time off “was similar to leave given to a deputy that was involved in a recent shooting, and that when the sheriff was dealing with things that he didn’t want publicized, this is how hours were recorded.”

The sheriff, who took office in 2011, said half a dozen special audits of such a large organization over a six-year period is not surprising  and not excessive.

He attributed most of the cited problems to “paper shuffling” errors.

“I’m not a person of perfection,” Richardson said.

The auditors were not swayed by Richardson’s explanation of the time card issue. In their report, they concluded the sheriff “instructed (the detective) to engage in time card fraud. The explanation that administrative leave was used came about only after it was well known in the Sheriff’s Office that an audit was being conducted.”

Auditors added, “The time card fraud occurred in order to compensate for the false terms of employment that were offered to (the detective).”

The audit recommended that all administrative leave be entered into the HR system to ensure that “this leave type is not utilized as a means to provide extra compensation or a method of favoring specific employees.”

COMMISSIONERS QUESTION ACTIONS

In a March 15 letter to Richardson — obtained along with the audits via a public records request — commissioners said they were “deeply troubled” by the sheriff’s handling of the detective’s employment and compensation.

“Regardless of your motivation or your apparent understanding of governing policies, the facts support the conclusion that your actions violated county policy,” the letter said. “Additionally, this situation indicates a serious lack of good judgment on your part.”

Commissioners also criticized Richardson for hiring outside counsel to advise him on sheriff’s legal matters.

Richardson secured advice that said his office could manage personnel under the Deputy Sheriff’s Merit System as addressed in state law. But the commission responded that all Davis employees are subject to the County Personnel Management Act, a “single merit system for all county employees.”

“The Sheriff’s Office is, therefore, subject to Davis County policies and procedures, including HR, financial and purchasing,” the commission said.

The commission laid down a series of directives to Richardson: 

  • Appear before the county commission at least monthly to “certify that you are in compliance with all Davis County policies.”
  • County HR must approve all personnel moves in advance.

  • Senior sheriff’s staff must receive HR training.

  • The sheriff’s office must use the county attorney’s civil division for any legal matters.

 Asked if he was complying with the commission’s edicts, Richardson chuckled and said, “No. … some of that stuff is just not practical.”

“My responsibility is to the people of Davis County, the voters, not to the county commission, the county attorney or the auditor,” Richardson said. “I took an oath to do that, and I’ll do that first before I do any political appeasements.”

He said he will continue to consult outside counsel when he sees the need. The county should guard against “group think,” he said, including getting advice from varied sources “to validate my thinking.”

Richardson said he and Rawlings have “not really seen eye to eye. He’s very set in his ways.”

Bad blood began, Richardson said, during the “Pay-for-Stay” flap in 2014.

RELATED: Davis County will reimburse 'pay for stay' jail inmates

After a judge ordered the county to reimburse two inmates for money collected from them by the sheriff’s office, Rawlings advised Richardson and the county commission “that taking or obtaining funds for Pay-for-Stay restitution without first submitting a claim for restitution and receiving a court order authorizing the restitution violates state law, and meaningful steps must be taken to return property to the lawful owner(s).”

Rawlings said the sheriff’s office could continue to seek restitution funds from inmates, but “follow the law” when doing it.

Rawlings early this year asked the Attorney General’s Office to investigate the sheriff’s office’s handling of the death of Heather Ashton Miller, who suffered a ruptured spleen in the Davis County Jail Dec. 21, 2016, and died later at an Ogden hospital.

Rawlings objected to the jail’s failure to report Miller’s injury to the County Attorney’s Office, which county procedures say must be alerted to all death-in-custody cases. State investigators later declined to recommend criminal charges, which Richardson said was vindication for his staff.

Rawlings presented the time card case for possible state prosecution as well. Attorney General’s spokesman Dan Burton said the office notified the county in June that it was declining to file any charges in the case.

AUDITOR BACKGROUND CHECKS

Still another conflict arose in April when Richardson issued an edict to sheriff’s personnel that anyone from the Clerk-Auditor’s Office must undergo a criminal background check before accessing any information from the sheriff’s office.

The directive was issued in April, shortly after a former internal auditor was charged with a pair of armed robberies in Farmington and Kaysville. Kevin Rasband, who left county employment in January, had conducted several of the audits of the Sheriff’s Office.

“They didn’t take it very nicely,” Richardson said of auditors’ reaction to the background check mandate. He said the order was necessary to “protect the public” from unguarded access to sheriff’s information.

“It’s unfair and unwise for the sheriff to throw up a non-statutory barrier to prevent the auditors from doing their job, based on the misconduct of one person which is not reflective of the auditor’s office at all,” Rawlings said in a phone interview.

Koch said the background check order came as auditors were looking into allegedly unauthorized travel expenses claimed by a sheriff’s deputy who attended memorial services for a fallen officer in Montana.

“Because of the order, I was concerned that our audit was being impeded,” Koch said. “As county auditor, my goal is to fulfill the statutory obligations of the office, and if that means I need access to records … I believe I should have that access so that I can do the job taxpayers have asked me to do.”

Koch acknowledged the sheriff, as an elected official, has discretion over such items as hotel stays, “but we look at everything. If something does need to be modified, and we see an issue, if we don’t review these things we will never have better policy.”

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at mshenefelt@standard.net or 801 625-4224. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SEmarkshenefelt.

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