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Durham DSS under investigation after critical audit

Posted April 4, 2012
Updated April 5, 2012

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— The Durham County Sheriff's Office is investigating the operations of the county's Department of Social Services office to determine whether any criminal offenses have occurred, County Manager Mike Ruffin said Wednesday.

The investigation follows a county audit of the DSS office that found Walmart gift cards normally used to provide emergency food or clothing to children in foster care and other DSS clients were being used to pay for office parties and reward agency workers.

"The audit findings are disturbing," Stan Holt, board chairman of Durham County DSS, said in a statement. "We expect sound procedures to be in place that ensure public funds are handled appropriately and with integrity. The weakness of internal controls in a public organization breaches the public trust."

Ruffin and Holt declined to comment on the criminal investigation.

County auditors found that DSS officials purchased almost $206,000 in Walmart gift cards between January 2007 and last November, but the agency didn't keep track of them or how they were used. One employee, for example, was found with more than $9,000 in gift cards in January, and files in the office contained folders filled with random receipts, notes about DSS programs, more gift cards and even $12 in cash, according to the audit.

Almost $7,100 in gift cards were used on training sessions, staff meetings, a Christmas charity program and to entice clients to participate in surveys, according to the audit. As much as $975 in gift cards was given to employees during a 2010 staff holiday party at the home of former DSS Director Geri Robinson, the audit states.

The Durham County Board of Commissioners fired Robinson last summer. She recently filed suit seeking to regain her job, as well as unspecified damages, and her attorney called the criminal investigation "a witch hunt."

Attorney Jack Nichols said Robinson paid the money back for the cards given to employees and maintained that the agency was using gift cards for office purposes, including buying food for meetings, before Robinson was hired.

Attorney: Audit, invesigation a 'witch hunt' Attorney: Audit, invesigation a 'witch hunt'

"It’s almost like they are fishing for reasons to justify her termination,” Nichols said.

He charged that Durham County Commissioner Joe Bowser, who sits on the DSS board, targeted Robinson "because she did not respond to his political direction." In her lawsuit, Robinson alleges that Bowser pressured her to hire certain people and treat people differently based on race.

"Some of the stuff that Bowser did, I think, is pretty egregious," Nichols said.

Bowser said the lawsuit is an attempt to smear him in an election year.

"It's just smoke that she has blown and her attorney has blown, and it's all going to be cleared up at the courthouse," he said.

He added that the audit's findings are only a small part of the problem he saw with DSS under Robinson.

"I was surprised at the fact that the audit didn't dig as deep as I thought it should have," he said.

The auditors tracked purchases linked to some of the gift cards and were able to substantiate that many were used appropriately.

Holt told WRAL News that he finds some comfort in those findings and said he wants to ensure that gift cards can still be used to help DSS clients in certain circumstances.

"I don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water," he said.

Interim DSS Director Gail Perry said in a statement included in the 26-page audit report that the agency has implemented better financial controls to account for gift card usage.

Aside from the gift cards, the audit also questioned the DSS office's use of temporary workers and contractors and the reimbursement of Robinson's moving expenses in 2009 without getting competitive bids.

43 Comments

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  • storchheim Apr 5, 2012

    "Time to cut back on these programs and ween those who depend upon these handouts at the taxpayers expense." Durham Devil

    Agree. The govt is so busy investigating itself at the state and county levels that it does little else. These programs have been failures and now it's at the point where the agencies themselves are more trouble than they're worth.

    Wean and dismantle.

  • federalsales2 Apr 5, 2012

    Just like every government run office, they do as they please and get away with it...No wonder the state is broke,,,but it will never change....So what is the answer??

  • nixonlisa70 Apr 5, 2012

    DSS across the state is corrupt...I direct your attention to Swain County DSS were two DSS workers were recently arrested for felony obstruction of justice for falsifying records to cover their failure to protect Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn, whom they left in the home...even when other children were removed from that home. Aubrey Kina-Marie, died January 10, 2011, because they left her in that home. http://stopcorruptdss.wordpress.com/tag/aubrey-kina-marie-littlejohn/

    Furthermore, this isn't the first time DSS has been busted mis-using gift cards or misappropriating funds. Until DSS is opened up to public scrutiny and they are no longer allowed to hide their corruption behind laws and policies meant to protect children and clients, this corruption will continue. We need laws that hold DSS accountable.

  • kal Apr 5, 2012

    This department has been currupt for years. Most people take a job with this county to get some experience under their belt and get out as soon as they can to another county. Unfortunately, the bad outweights the good in this office. This is not the first time people in this department have taken away from kids/parents either, go back about 10 years and you will find they took advantage of food banks providing food to the poor and to foster parents.

  • ecualumni1982 Apr 5, 2012

    Stealing is bad, but honestly this investigation and prosicution will cost as much as the DSS workers stole, so who is the loser (us). Its great they caught these people, but its not like CSI monitored state budgetary systems and found an algorithm to identify the misappropriations, some worker wanted to get thier boss in trouble. And last, social services is always pointed to during budget crunches for cuts, while millions in construction are approved every year, executive pay at the agencies and universities increase, yet like fools we are appeased by the fact they lay off state employees or don't offer them pay increases.

  • Rico Apr 5, 2012

    Durham DSS Motto: Party all the time..drinking French Wine..Party all the time on the tax payer dime...

  • Rebelyell55 Apr 5, 2012

    I just hope this agencies is the exception and not the rule for the other 99 counties.

  • coreylipscomb832 Apr 5, 2012

    There's a picture of the director at the N&O

  • bubbaOK Apr 5, 2012

    They refuse to "get it right" I believe because of dishonesty. They just refuse to take the high road and do it right in hopes of taking the system, and we have a fair amount of trouble from the lack of judgment of this bureaucracy that prolly views itself as no more disfunctional than other state agencies.

  • tommys5 Apr 5, 2012

    This looks like an insiders view point.

    http://rev-elution.blogspot.com/2011/07/robinsion-fired-as-head-of-dss.html

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