Convertibles, beer tubes, spa: Auditors probing Granville schools' spending
Posted November 5, 2014
Oxford, N.C. — Four months after he resigned from Granville County Schools under intense public pressure, former Superintendent Tim Farley says he is shocked and disturbed to learn that the school system has once again called in auditors to investigate him – this time for charges he made on his school-issued credit card during the past three years.
His departure was also tied to the release of an audit that found some school board members were "surprised to learn the details" of the contracts and salaries of the top administrators. Despite his decision to resign, Farley said in June that he "did nothing wrong."
He used those same words again Sunday when WRAL Investigates met him at his attorney's office in Greenville to talk about the latest audit examining his credit card purchases. The audit is expected to be discussed in closed session at Thursday's school board meeting.
"I've been separated now for four months. This comes as a complete shock to me," Farley said. "It's disturbing. And the most disturbing thing is, why now?"
Farley is not the only one being investigated. School board members, by a majority vote, recently asked auditors – on top of their regular, annual audit – to further investigate three other areas within the school system: the Virtual Enterprise Program, the Community Schools Program and a confidential matter involving personnel, according to school officials.
WRAL Investigates filed a public records request to get copies of documents the auditors were reviewing. In response, the school system provided the past three years of credit card statements for the five employees who had school-issued cards, one of which belonged to Farley.
WRAL Investigates reviewed statements for the five credit cards and found thousands of dollars in technology purchases, convertible sports car rentals, two spa charges at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, an online order for a 12-pack of Heineken BeerTender Tubes, an Amazon Prime membership, non-itemized receipts from restaurants such as Dugans Pub, Atlantic Beer Garden and Whiskey Priest, and other purchases that appeared questionable.
Audit's findings will likely 'shake the confidence' of the public
Granville County Schools' finance director Beth Day and public information officer Stan Winborne agreed to talk with WRAL Investigates about the audit and the questionable purchases that were found.
"The auditors are here because we realize there are some issues," Winborne said. "I think this is probably going to shake the confidence in the public a little bit, but I want them to know that we're working very hard to be good stewards of the taxpayers' dollars."
Auditors from Anderson, Smith & Wike, out of Rockingham, spent about two weeks at the school system last month, poring over documents as requested by the school board. Day says they often stopped to ask her questions about what they had found.
"It's constant conversation back and forth," Day said. "They've asked about personal reimbursements, any personal kind of expenses."
When asked if the auditors appeared to be concerned about what they found, Day said she thinks they were. "I had some concerns, (too)," she added.
One of Day's major concerns was the amount of technology being purchased, especially by former superintendent Farley.
WRAL Investigates found that Farley bought more than $6,000 worth of high-tech devices in a three-year period, including a Microsoft Surface Pro tablet, Galaxy Note smart phone and smart watch, iPad, iPad Mini, multiple pairs of earbuds and headphones, including $169 JayBird BlueBuds and $106 Jabra Sport headphones, as well as numerous accessories for phones and tablets.
Day says she repeatedly reported the purchases to her supervisor, Allan Jordan, who was associate superintendent at the time and retired this past summer.
"I took it to him, told him I was very concerned and was told, 'OK ... I'll handle it,'" Day recalled.
WRAL Investigates made multiple attempts to reach Jordan for comment and also reached out to an attorney who once represented him, but did not get a response.
Day says Granville County Schools' general practice for technology purchases is that everything should go through the technology department.
"Anytime that I was aware of procedures outside of our general procedures, I took it to the associate superintendent," she said.
Farley: 'They never held back against me'
In his interview Sunday, Farley said this was the first he heard of any concerns about his spending.
"Not once in the course of seven years did anybody come to me and say, 'Tim, this is untoward.' Not once," he said. "I'm not going to drag anybody under the bus, the least of which would be the finance officer, but we had a relationship, and she had a fiduciary responsibility if she thought there was something hinky going on to come to me and say, 'Tim, I have a problem with this.'"
Winborne, the school system's public information officer, came to Day's defense, saying she was simply following protocol by telling her direct supervisor and that going straight to the superintendent would have put her in an awkward position.
"It's difficult when you're talking about a relationship with someone that's your supervisor and the boss. It's just tough," Winborne said.
Farley dismissed those concerns, saying he had an open, honest relationship with Day, as well as other administrators under him, and often discussed difficult issues with them.
"They never held back against me," he said. "Not one time."
Farley pointed to one example in February 2013 when he says he accidentally purchased a $25 pack of Heineken BeerTender Tubes on Amazon using his school credit card instead of his personal card.
"I remember the finance officer coming down, and she looked sheet white, and she said, 'Beer taps? Really?' And I said, 'Oh my God ... I can't believe I did that,'" he recalled. "I paid that back and wrote a statement: 'I made a mistake. I clicked the wrong button.'"
Farley says he made the same mistake again this past March when he accidentally purchased a $79 Amazon Prime membership with the school system's credit card instead of his own. Once again, he said, he reimbursed the money.
Records show Day wasn't the only one concerned about Farley's purchases. A record included with the credit card statements showed an undated, unsigned letter from someone in the school system questioning Farley's spending habits.
"I will be forwarding you the SunTrust Visa bill each month so you can look at it. I do not like Dr. Farley's charges going unknown by you," the staffer wrote in the half-page letter. "It seems we are buying ear buds each month, the latest are $169 each. I have requested that he give me the itemized receipts from restaurants ... but he tells me they don't give them to him."
Day said the note was given to her by an accounts payable staffer.
On another record, an employee noted that Farley had no purchases on his school credit card in January 2012, writing: "none!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! UnBeLievAble!!!!"
Farley defends technology, car rental purchases
Farley defended his spending in his interview with WRAL Investigates, saying he purchased most of the technology for "the greater good" of the school system and not for himself.
"It's not like I took these items and sold them on eBay," he said. "It was all work related."
In some instances, Farley said, the technology department came to him and asked him to buy items because they were out of budget or they wanted him to test certain pieces of equipment.
"Technology came to me and said, 'Tim, we're out of budget right now. You're not. Can you buy this Galaxy Note 4, and we'll take a look at it?'" Farley recalled. "And I said, 'Sure, I will,' and it came bundled with the Gear (smart) watch."
Vanessa Wrenn, Granville County Schools' director of technology, says that isn't true.
"We have never been out of budget on my watch," she said, adding that she never asked Farley to test any equipment for the school system.
As for the multiple earbud and headphone purchases, Farley defended his spending on those as well.
"Earbuds ... they break," he said. "They snap off. A lot of things happen to earbuds. I'm very hard on earbuds. I don't deny that."
One time while visiting a school, Farley says, he took a pair of earbuds from around his neck and gave them to student who had lost his.
"I said, 'Here, take these,' because he was in a lather about not having his earbuds," Farley recalled. "Another time, I bought some earbuds for a staff member. I was at the airport. I remember it vividly."
WRAL Investigates also questioned Farley about the rental cars he purchased while on school-funded trips. Records show he typically rented convertible sports cars and once paid a $100 upgrade fee for a Camaro convertible, bringing the total bill for that car to $877.06, which was paid for by the school system.
"My primary mode of transportation is a Sebring convertible. I drive convertibles. I like convertibles," he said. "In a strange city like Phoenix or San Diego, that comfort that you have with driving an automobile that has the same kind of feel is important ... to me."
During one of his trips, Farley said, the rental company didn't have a Sebring or Mustang available, so he opted for the more expensive Camaro. Farley says other school officials often came with him on trips and were aware of what he was driving.
"The board knew I had a convertible out in San Diego. The finance officer knew I had a convertible," he said. "Why didn't anybody come to me and say, 'Tim, this convertible is a problem'?"
Farley says he understands if taxpayers are upset about his purchases or want to question why he bought things. But, he says, it's important to note that he often paid for meals with his own money while on trips and didn't charge the taxpayers. He hopes people take that into account.
Many of the meals Farley and other school officials charged to the school system, however, did not come with itemized receipts, according to the records WRAL Investigates reviewed. Receipts for places such as Dugans Pub, Atlantic Beer Garden and Whiskey Priest did not include what Farley purchased. He assures taxpayers he never bought alcohol with his school-issued credit card.
"I was never asked by anybody to provide itemized receipts," he said. "I was never confronted."
Questionable purchases found years later
After reviewing the three years of credit card documents, WRAL Investigates had questions about other purchases not related to Farley's spending.
In Granville County Schools, credit cards are typically issued to the superintendent, associate and assistant superintendents and a board clerk. Each of the credit card holders are responsible for reviewing their statements each month. The statements and receipts are then sent to the finance department, where they are checked again.
Despite those checks, some questionable purchases were not found until years later, according to the finance director.
Day says she recently became aware of one charge from three or four years ago involving a plane ticket the school system purchased for an employee's husband, who did not work for the school system.
The plane ticket was bought so the husband could attend a work conference with his wife, but he ended up not going and never used the ticket. The school system was never reimbursed.
"This was several years ago, and we're trying to trace it back to who authorized for that person to even get that airline ticket," Day said.
Another charge that was recently brought to Day's attention, she said, involved two "spa retail" purchases made in June 2011 at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville totaling $176.06 – one charge for $130.80 and the other for $45.26. It's unclear what was purchased, and Day says she has not contacted the hotel to find out.
"I personally feel like, regardless of what specifically that was, it should be reimbursed to the district," she said.
WRAL Investigates contacted the Grove Park Inn to inquire about the charges, but they declined to release any information, citing the North Carolina Innkeeper Law.
"I do apologize, but ... I am forbidden to disclose this type of information," public relations director Tracey Johnston-Crum said in a statement.
The receipt from the Grove Park Inn shows the charges appeared to belong to Eugenia Slaughter, a teacher at the school system who is currently being investigated for an unknown matter and has been on paid leave since Aug. 25 of this year.
As a teacher, Slaughter did not have access to a school credit card, but Day has an idea of how the purchases may have been made.
"The only thing I can think of is it was charged to her room," Day said, adding that she has not talked to Slaughter and can only speculate at this point. "The credit card was used to purchase a room legitimately for a conference, and then an expense was charged (to the room)."
Attorney: Teacher did not charge spa treatments to the school
When reached by phone, Slaughter asked WRAL Investigates to contact her attorney, Chance Wilkinson.
"You're the first person that's told us (about the spa purchases)," Wilkinson said. "We haven't heard anything about it."
After reviewing the receipt from the Grove Park Inn and talking with his client, Wilkinson said Slaughter did, in fact, go to the hotel's spa while at the conference in June 2011. She got a 15-minute reflexology massage and bought a reflexology DVD, totaling $81.35.
Slaughter says those were the only items she bought at the spa and that both purchases were charged to her husband's credit card. She provided WRAL Investigates with a copy of that credit card statement showing the two purchases.
"She did not authorize or charge any spa treatment to the room that was paid for by the school system," her attorney said.
Wilkinson said the school system has never questioned his client about the spa purchases, and he's unsure if those purchases are the reason she was put on leave.
"We don't really know, to be honest with you," he said. "They have been very tight-lipped about it."
Wilkinson says the school system investigated Slaughter last spring for a school trip she took with students to China. She raised money for the trip by selling food and other items and collecting donations from parents. She then put that money in her personal bank account and used it to pay for items for students on the trip, according to Wilkinson.
"(The money) probably should have been in the school's name, but she wasn't given instructions on how to do that," Wilkinson said. "She has accounted for every dollar she spent."
Slaughter was cleared in that investigation and returned to work this past spring, Wilkinson said. She then received a letter before the new school year started, saying she was being investigated and placed on paid leave for an indefinite period of time.
Granville County Schools declined to comment on the investigation, saying it is a personnel matter.
Farley says someone is out to get him
No matter what the auditors find during their investigation, former superintendent Farley says he is sure of one thing – someone is out to get him.
"I have no idea (who it is). That would be speculation. But the timing is certainly very curious," he said. "Nothing ever came up in a (previous) audit. Nothing ever came up in conversations. People knew about certain things that they're now questioning. So, it does seem to me to be a bit curious."
The reason the audit is happening now, according to school board Chairwoman Brenda Dickerson-Daniel, is because "problems came to light."
"The Board of Education, by a majority vote – 5 of the 7 of us – we realized there were problems," she said. "We addressed those problems and felt we needed to take the extra step to make sure we could correct anything that was wrong. We are responsible to our public, and these were taxpayers dollars that were involved and we take that very seriously."
"The Board of Education is guilty of one thing," she added. "We trusted the professionals we contracted with and paid handsomely to do their jobs well with integrity and transparency and, unfortunately, that wasn’t always the case. We were obligated to react to someone else’s actions, and that’s what led us to the audit."
Dickerson-Daniel said she didn't have the results of the current audit and couldn't comment on any of the items WRAL Investigates found in the credit card statements.
"We’ve not heard any of this. I’ve not heard as much as you," she said. "We’re waiting for the audit presentation. I am very hopeful that this will resolve our concerns."
Finance director Day says she has already taken steps to make sure that school-issued credit cards are handled more appropriately in the future. She has written a draft policy for the auditors to review that would address what can be purchased on credit cards, set parameters on hotel and car rental costs and require itemized receipts for all purchases.
Day would also like to see the school board be in charge of reviewing the superintendent's credit card purchases.
"I'm very encouraged that we have these auditors in that have experience with many other (school) districts so that they can give us best practices, and they can give us tips on things that we can do," she said.
As for Farley, he says he is enjoying his retirement and hopes to one day return to education, possibly as a Catholic school principal or teacher. While he has no plans to return to Granville County Schools, he says he would work there again if asked.
"I'm focused on moving ahead," he said. "More than anything, I want (people) to know I did nothing wrong."