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Official: Dig 'really deep'
Invite to feds will include all departments
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Forsyth County News


* Report will guide update of policies.

It's not clear when, or if, federal officials will take the Forsyth County commission up on its offer to look into the local elections office.

Regardless, Chairman Charles Laughinghouse said further investigation is necessary "for the integrity of our county government."

"When an issue is raised like this by an accountant, then it's in the best interest of the county to put that issue to bed once and for all ... to have an outside agency involved."

The internal controls review, begun last year by Sawyer & Co. of Dawsonville, was made public at Tuesday's commission work session. The commission then voted 5-0 to ask the U.S. Department of Justice for "further fact-finding" in a section addressing the elections department.

Issues raised in the report included 113 "significant deficiencies," or items to monitor, and four "material weaknesses," which Chief Financial Officer Bill Thomas said are the most severe risks in the report.

Two of the weaknesses were in the elections department. The other two involved a payroll glitch and a lack of controls in the handling of 1-cent sales tax revenues, both of which Thomas said have been corrected.

In correspondence to the justice department, which has not yet been sent, the county also plans to invite federal officials to look at all departments and offices.

Laughinghouse said if officials "dug really deep into actions of some other county activities, in both perhaps departments and constitutional offices, they would find other issues if they dug deep enough."

County Attorney Ken Jarrard said commissioners wanted the justice department because it is "an outside-of-the-county body, with investigative powers."

Jarrard said the commission is basically asking the department to "investigate those findings and recommendations of the Sawyer report as they pertain to the elections office."

Jarrard said the justice department could decline the county's invite.

"If they come in and believe whatever the concern was in the Sawyer report is outside of their realm of authority ... it will be for them to make that determination," Jarrard said.

Former elections director Gary J. Smith -- whose consulting agreements with outside agencies were detailed in the audit as "material weaknesses," or serious risks -- said he's "glad" the commission made the move.

"The justice department will take no action because there's no reason to respond," Smith said.

The Sawyer report raised issues with consulting agreements between then-elections director Smith and Cherokee County and Smith and Election Science Institute, an organization that studies elections.

According to the report, Smith entered into an agreement with Cherokee County at a pay rate of $500 per day for a 31-day period.

The report stated that Smith was compensated by Cherokee County for 160 hours of work, while in the same time period he clocked 93.97 hours with Forsyth County.

"In total, Mr. Smith was compensated for 351.97 hours in a period which only had a realistic possible work time of 248 hours, including weekends and one holiday," the report noted.

Smith said he used comp time he earned to take time off from his Forsyth County duties to do the work in Cherokee County.

Timekeeping records of Smith's work with ESI were also mentioned in the report.

Thomas said the Sawyer report provided "direct evidence" on this matter that a previous audit by Bates, Carter and Co. "did not have."

"The Sawyer report ... provided an e-mail from the company called ESI that indicated to us that they paid Gary Smith $7,500 for his work with them," Thomas said. "He essentially got paid by the county when he wasn't here and he got paid by ESI for the same work."

Smith, who now serves as chief registrar and elections board chairman, said both issues have been resolved and he saw no reason for further investigation.

Thomas said the reason for hiring Sawyer & Co. was to "have a stronger internal controls system in place that will hopefully decrease any exposure we might have to fraud or anything like that ... or loss of assets."

"The Gary Smith issue came up because that was left over from the Bates, Carter report," he said.

Tuesday's decision followed the recent reorganization of the elections office, which stemmed from a long-running issue over the legality of Smith serving as both chairman and department head.

Barbara Luth has been named supervisor of elections, overseeing the day-to-day functions of the county's elections and voter registration department.

E-mail Frank Reddy at