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Government, Politics & Issues

Montee declares that findings of fire district audit are the worst she's seen

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 18, 2009 - State Auditor Susan Montee faced a huge and hostile crowd here Tuesday night. But they weren't upset with her. They were upset with what she had to report.

Montee was outlining the results of her staff's limited audit of the Northeast Ambulance and Fire Protection District, which takes in Bel-Nor, Bel-Ridge, Bellerive and a dozen other nearby communities.

The audit is "limited" in scope because the district's board and its lawyer, former state Rep. Elbert Walton, have resisted turning over documents. They kicked out Montee's audit staff in June.

Still, the conclusions that could be gleaned by her staff auditors, said Montee, represented "the worst audit I've done" among the 300-plus that her office has done since she took office in 2007.

"The records are very bad. They weren't even keeping a ledger," Montee said in an interview after she presented the audit's findings to hundreds of district residents packing a meeting room at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

At the same time, the board had "a reluctance to let us see stuff (and) they went out of there to do things wrong, purposely."

The upshot: About $3.6 million in district funds appears to be misallocated in various funds, although Montee emphasized to the crowd that it's not clear if any money is actually missing.

The board already is engulfed in suits filed by Montee (seeking records) and Attorney General Chris Koster (alleging violations of the state's open-records laws).

And more legal trouble may follow. Montee said she also has forwarded the audit's findings to St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch.

"If there is actions they can take, I'm sure they'll take it," Montee said.

She said in the interview that she was releasing the partial audit because she suspects the court fights will take a year or more.

The audit had been formally requested by then-Gov. Matt Blunt last year, in the wake of complaints by district residents and an investigation by the Post-Dispatch into the actions of the board and Walton.

The documents that Montee's staff have been able to obtain were enough to fuel a long list of damning conclusions in the audit, such as:

-- "The district's budget does not comply with state law" because, among a number of things, it failed to include provisions for the district's ambulance, pension and dispatch funds.

-- "The district did not solicit bids for some purchases, and some disbursements did not appear to be prudent and necessary uses of public finds including a 37-inch flat screen television."

-- "The district did not enter into contracts for some services" and failed to maintain copies of contracts.

-- "The district does not have a formal policy regarding credit card usage or travel expenses" or use of district-owned cell phones.

-- "The district did not solicit proposals prior to contracting for legal services" with Walton, who is paid a retainer of $120,000 a year; his counterparts at nearby fire districts are paid $24,000 a year for their legal services, Montee said.

-- The district owes $478,000 to the pension fund for its firefighters and paramedics, although it appears to have the money available in other accounts.

-- The district purchased a building for $512,000, using Walton's wife as its real estate agent.

Walton and the board were unavailable Tuesday for comment. Walton appeared briefly at the beginning of Montee's presentation, and left with copies of the audit.

During the heated question-answer period, board secretary-treasurer Rhea Willis stood up and beseeched the crowd to help her and the board operate the district in a better manner. She praised Montee and her staff, saying their findings could help point the way.

But the crowd made clear it's upset with the board and Walton. Several shouted that Walton should be disbarred or arrested.

"I'm embarrassed we're in this shape," said Cheryl Milton Roberts, a former member of Bellerive Acres' board of trustees.

Roberts also asserted that the district's board had wrongly injected the issue of race into the dispute, unnecessarily fueling racial tensions in the diverse district. The three-person board and Walton is African-American, as is Roberts.

Said district resident Mary Lou Krueger of the audit report: "It's even worse than we imagined. And we imagined the worst."

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