UPDATE 9:40 p.m. 4/4: Minor edits throughout; ADDS Franklin’s alleged failure to report all real estate holdings to State Ethics Board; ADDS Bivins-Franklin dispute over credit card reimbursement
A February report by the accounting firm Mauldin and Jenkins that outlines an audit of county travel expenses did not go into specifics about which officials’ accounts were flagged. However, a document that links the names of elected and appointed officials and county employees to expenses shows who owed the county money, documentation, or both. The Clayton Crescent has been working to clarify how much, if anything, has been repaid and by whom, on what dates.
According to the Finance Department, District 3 Commissioner Felicia Franklin still owes the county $127.08. Other officials that Finance said still owe for travel expenses include Jason Brookins ($121.86), Scott Parham ($25), and Rebecca Hardeman ($20).
However, travel and training expenses for many county employees—including commissioners, department heads and constituent aides—were flagged in the audit. A flag in and of itself means something worth checking. It does not necessarily translate into illegal or improper spending—but it means that a transaction requires a closer look.
Chairman Jeff Turner said District Attorney Tasha Mosley will review the audit.
“Whether there’s anything illegal or criminal, she needs to know about it,” Turner told The Clayton Crescent, “because it’s dealing with the taxpayers’ money.”
Turner said, “People owe the county money for travel expenses….some have been outstanding for some time.”
A tale of two audits
After the BOC voted 3-2 to hire Terminus to conduct an audit of education expenses for county officials, that company recommended another audit of travel and training expenditures by the chief operating officer, chief financial officer, county attorney, and county managers and/or department heads. Turner suggested the audit include BOC members, a proposal the BOC voted down 3-2.
Later, the BOC voted to hire Mauldin and Jenkins to audit travel, training, and executive purchasing expenses.
Mauldin and Jenkins wrote in its February 2023 report on its findings that the firm had been “engaged to conduct a review of the County’s travel and training expenses related to County employees, as well as review purchases made under Section 2-115 of the Clayton County Code, related to the use of informal purchasing procedures approved by the CFO, COO, or Board Chair.”
Section 2-115 does not require formal sealed bids for purchases under $74,999—but it does require at least three price quotes for those smaller purchases, “unless adequate source supply is not available.”
It also forbids splitting up large-ticket purchases into several smaller ones to get around the $74,999 limit and imposes penalties for doing do: “Violations of this policy will be enforced pursuant to the Clayton County Civil Service Rules regarding improper use of county resources and the Clayton County Ethics Code regarding misuse of county assets.”
And it limits departmental purchases and P-card, or purchase card, limits to $5,000. All those purchases must be documented, with receipts or a signed “submission statement and affidavit on forms provided by the department of finance” if a receipt is lost.
The report speaks in broad terms about the process of auditing the county’s travel and training expenses. It does not say who had expenses or how much each person’s expenses were:
However, other county documents do specify those names, dates, and expense amounts. Each person’s travel or training expense is tied to a claim number. The Clayton Crescent received such a document, which was a spreadsheet breaking out items that Mauldin and Jenkins had flagged in its review of county officials’ spending. After much wrangling through an Open Records Request, we got the same document from the Finance Department last week:
On Monday, the Finance Department sent a follow-up list of the four employees it said still owe travel expenses. However, it did not clarify who among the original list had repaid or resolved any outstanding issues, nor the dates when those repayments might have happened.
According to Turner, the county had “sent out notes to employees and ex-employees,” including Franklin, who owe the county for travel advances that were not used or not properly approved. In Franklin’s case, Turner said, “The county took money out of her paycheck two times, but she still owes [for] others.”
He said the audit “revealed several people with outstanding debt for payments given to them. That’s alarming to me. I would ask that these people pay it back.”
While it’s not unusual to lose a receipt or to order a fancy meal during a convention, those in charge of keeping the books generally require someone who cannot justify the expense (or produce a written affidavit as to the cost) to pay for it themselves. When a travel allowance is given to an employee, they are expected to return whatever they did not spend; if they went over their allotted travel allowance budget or requested an upgrade, such as first-class airfare, they are supposed to pick up any overages themselves. The county decides what travel expenses are reasonable, based on benchmarks like the General Service Administration’s recommendations.
Here is a breakdown, by accounting issue, of whose accounts were flagged by Mauldin and Jenkins. The purpose of the audit was partly to account for where your tax dollars went and partly to give the Board of Commissioners and their legal advisors information to help them develop better oversight and policies about how to safeguard those public funds.
Several kinds of discrepancies, or “exceptions,” were identified. Those include excess travel funds that were advanced to the person, incomplete paperwork, travel upgrades without prior approval, using county funds to pay for local travel, and meal costs that weren’t fully justified. Again, these exceptions are not necessarily in and of themselves evidence of wrongdoing, but of practices that Mauldin and Jenkins recommends the county stop allowing:
- “No repayment of funds to County for cash advance overpayment to employee
- Expense claim closed incorrectly”
- “No prior authorization for exceeding GSA rate by more than 20%”
- “Prior authorization for exceeding GSA rate by more than 20% did not include explicit exception request and was only signed by the employee themselves”
- “Prior authorization for exceeding GSA rate by more than 20% was signed by at least one reviewer in addition to the employee, but does not include explicit exception request”
- “Reimbursement of mileage for use of a personal vehicle within 10 miles of an employee’s residence or place of work”
- “No explanation provided for use of personal vehicle”
- “No prior approval for a higher class of service (e.g., Delta Comfort+, deluxe hotel suite, etc.)”
- “Lack of clarity if a meal or other miscellaneous cost charged on a lodging receipt was paid for by the employee or the County, including questions of inappropriate reimbursement for personal expenses”
- “Cannot replicate calculations for meal per diem reimbursement, calculations appear to utilize incorrect per diem rates, and/or calculations appear to include disallowed expenses (i.e., incidentals)”
- “Expense claim includes meals at cost reimbursed during travel”
Some of the exceptions result from things like staying at a conference hotel when the rooms might cost more, but when being close to the event and not running up rideshare and taxi costs from a different location make better financial sense, Turner explained.
“Some directors and commissioners don’t have proper documentation” for their travel expenses, he added. For example, according to Turner, county policy is for officials and employees to fly main or coach, “not Delta Comfort and not first class.”
We also asked Turner to address his own travel flags. He acknowledged that his name came up in some cases, but attributed that to using conference hotels, as opposed to booking cheaper hotels nearby, which he said would incur more transportation fees and cut into time. He added that, as chairman, he’s the person who has to sign off on everybody’s travel.
“I’m the approving authority,” he said, “so the approval stops with me….I sign travel requests every day. If it comes to me, if it’s a department head, I will ask. But government officials, I don’t. I would think Finance would have approved those.”
Authenticating the record
In response to an Open Records Request for more specific information about the audit, Clayton County’s Finance Department provided The Clayton Crescent with the names and claim numbers. It did not provide the itemized dollar amounts, dates, or reasons why Mauldin and Jenkins had flagged those people’s transactions.
To be fair, we did specifically request the names and claim numbers, and that is exactly what we got—nothing more that would have put that information into context. We then sent an amended ORR for the dollar amounts and dates of any advances and training, as well as the dollar amounts and dates of any repayments to the county, related to those names and claim numbers. The document we had received through a separate source did not include information about repayments for anyone other than a single item for District 3 Commissioner Felicia Franklin—a travel advance for a conference she did not attend.
Last Tuesday, we e-mailed Franklin, seeking confirmation of whether the amounts and dates linked to amounts she allegedly owed were correct, and seeking a response by 5 p.m. About 5:06 p.m., Interim Assistant to the CFO Regina James called, saying CFO Stacey Merritt was on the other line and that Merritt was concerned about whether the information The Clayton Crescent had was “accurate.”
According to James, Merritt said one of five items listed in our e-mail to Franklin had been repaid. That item was $416.03, for cash advance overpayment to employee October 10-12, 2018. That item had been flagged on our source’s document with the message “Did not attend the conference—confirmed deduction from payroll 2.14.2019 and 2.28.2019.”
After apparently conferring with Merritt, James came back on the line and said, “Stacey’s concern is that, if what you’re printing is going to be inaccurate, she wanted to see if you and her could have a conversation in the morning.”
James confirmed that the $416.03 had ben repaid in two installments. However, she did not know when or what the two amounts were and that Merritt “said that she would be happy to provide the information through another Open Records Request.” When we pointed out that James and Merritt had called us and that we would be happy to verify the information with them while we were all on the phone at that moment, James again put us on hold, then returned, saying “She wants to know where you got your information from.”
We explained that reporters cannot disclose their sources and that government officials could not tell reporters when and what to publish because that constitutes prior restraint, and were placed on hold again. James then said, “She’s not trying to keep you from doing something, but she just wanted you to report accurate information.”
We then asked James to verify the accuracy of all five advances to Franklin. She again acknowledged that she had said the $416.03 had been repaid in full in two installments, but that she was unable to provide the dates and amounts at that time “because I would have to look and see.”
Asked about the accuracy of each of the four remaining disbursements listed on the document we received—$7.08 for October 3-4, 2019; $120 for July 8-13, 2021; $35.60 for November 7-11, 2021; and $135 for March 2-4, 2021—James said in each case that she did not know or that she did not the have information at that time: “I would have to depend on someone to give me that information,” she explained. “That’s why I’m saying I don’t know, because I don’t know.”
Asked whether Franklin had asked Merritt and James to call The Clayton Crescent, James said, “I don’t know, I’m just—Stacey called me and told me to call you. And that’s what I did.” When asked how they knew that The Clayton Crescent had e-mailed Franklin, and that Franklin “must have certainly said something to y’all,” James replied, “I guess so.”
At 5:35 p.m., we called Merritt back. She said she was not in the office but was able to answer questions. She confirmed that Franklin had sent her an e-mail, “with the information you provided, and I just wanted to let you know that it was incomplete,” specifically “the dollar amounts and the amount that she owes. You didn’t get that from us, so just wanted to let you know before you print it.”
Asked to verify whether the $416.03 had been repaid in two installments, Merritt said, “I don’t have it in front of me. It was repaid, but I don’t know exactly, you know, how the payments were paid. We do have the data at the office, so.” We also asked whether the money had been repaid recently. “It was before my time, I believe,” Merritt said.
We listed the other four amounts from the document we had received and asked if they sounded familiar. Merritt said, “I know that the larger one was repaid at some point prior to my taking over. I would encourage you to do an Open Records Request for the full information before you print anything. So, if you want the amounts that are still fully outstanding, the amounts that go with the claims, I would suggest asking for that.”
We said we would resubmit and asked whether the form of the request sounded OK.
“I mean, your job’s your job, mine’s mine,” Merritt said. “I just wanted to, based on what I was reading in the e-mail that Commissioner Franklin sent to me, your information is not accurate.”
We then requested e-mails to and from Franklin (presumably including Merritt, James, or other Finance Department employee) regarding our request that she confirm the accuracy of the data flagged by Mauldin and Jenkins, specifically:
- No repayment of funds to County for cash advance overpayment to employee
- $416.03 for a conference you reportedly did not attend from Oct. 10-12, 2018
- $7.08 from Oct. 3-4, 2019
- $120 from July 8-13, 2021
- $35.60 from Nov. 7-11, 2021
- $135 from March 2-4, 2022
- Expense claim closed incorrectly (twice)
- No prior authorization for exceeding GSA rate by more than 20% (four times)
- Prior authorization for exceeding GSA rate by more than 20% did not include explicit exception request and was only signed by the employee themselves (twice)
- Prior authorization for exceeding GSA rate by more than 20% was signed by at least one reviewer in addition to the employee, but does not include explicit exception request
- No prior approval for a higher class of service (e.g., Delta Comfort+, deluxe hotel suites, etc.)
We had asked Franklin to comment on the accuracy of the above audit flags, as well as for “confirmation of whether or not the total of $713.71 in allegedly unpaid [outstanding] travel advances has been repaid.” We also asked whether any of those travel advances had been repaid with “what appears to be a cashier’s check for $259 dated 10/25/22 from Delta Community Credit Union,” which we obtained through a previous Open Records Request to the county. As of press time on Tuesday, April 4, Franklin had not yet responded to our request.
On Wednesday, James e-mailed that she had attached the updated response. However, the only attachment was the original one without the financial information. Finally, we received the document—which matched the one our source had provided.
A separate e-mail from another county employee acknowledged finding e-mails responsive. to our request but that those had been sent to legal to be vetted. (As of press time Tuesday. April 4, those letters had yet to be released.)
We reiterated that the Finance Department had not supplied the requested repayment dates and amounts, which would have brought the original list up to date, assuming anyone had repaid any funds owed the county. Merritt said another ORR would be required. When we pointed out on Thursday, March 30 that our repeated requests for clarification on who had repaid what and when “seems like a lot of back and forth,” Merritt replied on Saturday, April 1, “Sorry but there is a process that has to be followed.”
Here is the Open Records Request process as explained by the Georgia First Amendment Foundation:
Neither Merritt nor James specified any statute as to why the public information The Clayton Crescent sought (and is still seeking) was exempt from disclosure.
On Monday, April 2, James replied with a list of what she said was the remaining outstanding amounts for several county employees, including $127.08 the Finance Department indicated that Warner owed as of Tuesday, April 4:
It is possible that all of the other people, from commissioners and department heads to constituent aides, have resolved any outstanding paperwork or balances owed either before or since our original request. We are waiting to hear from the county attorney’s office as to who has repaid any balances owed, as well as the amounts and dates of those payments.
Travel expenses for aides
A look at the document that the Finance Department supplied in response to our ORR—and that matched our source’s document— shows that Franklin’s constituent aide, Kayla Collier, racked up $2,754 for travel to Savannah from April 27, 2022 to May 1, 2022, followed by another $2,269 for travel to Denver (during the 2022 NACO conference in Denver, CO) from July 20, 2022 to July 25, 2022.
That’s a total of $5,023, according to the document provided by the Finance Department, for Franklin’s constituent aide over a three-month period last year.
Last year, we requested the county provide proof that Collier had attended the conferences to which taxpayers had paid her travel expenses. We have asked ACCG and NACO to confirm whether Collier was a registered participant and whether she was part of any training or other conference activities and will update with their responses.
One way to substantiate whether conference travel was justified is to submit a program that shows the person was an invited speaker or completed some job-related training. Several sources have claimed that Collier provides “nanny” services for Franklin’s minor children; Franklin and Collier have not responded to our requests, first sent in July 2022, for comment on whether or not that is true.
District 2 Commissioner Gail Hambrick’s constituent aide, Tina Howard, had many more travel expenses to mostly-unspecified locations from January 1, 2018 to June 30, 2022. Destinations like “Clayton County, GA,” “Various, Georgia” and “Local, Georgia” were listed several times. Howard also traveled to Savannah from November 11, 2021 to November 15, 2021 ($2,188) and from April 27, 2022 to May 1, 2022 ($2,279), as well as to Aurora, CO from July 20, 2022 to July 24, 2022 ($3,235.20)—the priciest trip listed. That’s a total of $10,451.83 of travel expenses in four and a half years’ time attributed to Howard, according to the document supplied to us by the Finance Department.
District 2 Commissioner Alieka Anderson’s constituent aide, LaVona Cooper, listed $325.37 in expenses from February 22, 2018 to December 31, 2018, as well as $257.52 from January 10, 2019 to August 21, 2019, both listing the destination as “Jonesboro, Georgia.” County policy forbids travel reimbursement within a ten-mile radius of an official’s or employee’s home.
District 4 Commissioner DeMont Davis’ constituent aide, Denise Harrod, only shows one expense of $177.93 on January 7, 2020. No destination was listed.
Chief Operating Officer Detrick Stanford’s assistant, Marcia Davis, shows $51.48 in expenses on June 10, 2019 and another $53.49 on June 20, 2019, but no destination was listed.
Turner’s former assistant, Katrina Holloway, did not have a claim number attached to her name and was noted as “no claims to report.” Previously, Holloway had told The Clayton Crescent that she did not run up expenses with the county, but that several constituent aides had.
After leading a 3-2 charge to remove Chief Financial Officer Ramona Bivins, allegedly because the county had paid her Ph.D. tuition for a Vanderbilt leadership program, Franklin has made much of accounting for the public’s tax dollars. During an update from Mauldin and Jenkins on the then-pending February audit report, Franklin questioned the auditor’s qualifications and suggested that she had comparable expertise.
However, Franklin has come under scrutiny in several venues for her own alleged uses of public funds and campaign contributions:
- Last week, Franklin hired counsel at the last minute to bump a scheduled State Ethics Board arraignment hearing—on allegations she dipped into campaign funds for what appear to be numerous personal expenses—to the next quarterly meeting in June. In addition, a state-level source told The Clayton Crescent, the board is looking into real estate holdings that Franklin allegedly had failed to report.
- Previously, The Clayton Crescent reported that Franklin’s and former Sheriff Victor Hill’s campaign finance documentation showed links to a nonexistent address in Atlanta tied to Hill and former CCSO Chief of Staff Mitzi Bickers’ Pirouette political consulting outfit (owned by Bickers’ wife), and that she also had had to reimburse other county travel allowance overages.
- Franklin (along with Anderson) is being sued for slander in Clayton County State Court by county employee Brandon Turner.
- Franklin, along with Anderson and Hambrick, is also being sued in federal court by former COO Bivins, who alleges the three violated her right to free association and that she was fired not for failing to do her job, but for her husband’s support of a candidate backed by Anderson, Franklin, Hill, and Pirouette. On November 15, 2022, the BOC voted for the county to foot Franklin’s legal bill—at $375 per hour—with Jarrad and Davis in the Bivins case.
- A year before voting to cancel Bivins’ contract, Franklin got into a heated discussion with Bivins over reimbursement for travel expenses she had charged to a personal credit card. Bivins told Franklin she was supposed to use the same point of contact. as all other employees for booking travel and suggested they bring the matter to Turner to resolve. Franklin reportedly tried to get Clayton County Police involved in bringing charges against Bivins and was told no crime had taken place. She then filed a police report with Jonesboro Police, who investigated and came to the same conclusion.
Training expenses also added up. Bivins’ Ph.D. studies at Vanderbilt University drew criticism from Franklin and others who saw it as a lavish perk funded at taxpayer expense. Turner sees it as an investment in Clayton County. The issue is whether Bivins’ employment contract, which included a clause for continuing education, applied to a Ph.D. program at an elite private university or was meant for more modest certificate programs. Mauldin and Jenkins recommended that, going forward, the county revisit the language in contracts like Bivins’ and COO Detrick Stanford’s to eliminate any ambiguity on the county’s part.
“Whether they write a new policy, throw it away, whatever it is, we need to abide by it every time,” Turner insisted. “If you don’t submit the required or the needed document, you just won’t get paid. If you have to pay it back over a long time, you should have to pay interest, too. I’m a firm believer in that because it’s the taxpayer’s money.”
The BOC is set to discuss a resolution tonight (Resolution 2023-77), which would authorizes Mauldin and Jenkins to audit all county employees’ travel and training costs over the five-year period from July 1, 2018 through July 31, 2022.
Watch the pre-agenda meeting and the meeting online.