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Wording softened in audit of county
Earlier draft more critical
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Forsyth County News
The draft version of a controversial Forsyth County audit called for investigation into possible legal violations in the local elections office, but the final version submitted to commissioners had milder language, changed at the request of the county's chief financial officer.

Though commissioners used the audit as the basis for asking the Justice Department to review the local elections office, references to possible “legal, ethical and policy violations” were toned down at the request of Bill Thomas.

The Justice Department has not yet responded to the county’s June 30 request.

Patrick Crosby, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office for northern Georgia, confirmed last week that the department had received the letter.

Crosby said it will be "reviewed to determine whether and how to proceed," though he could not say when that might happen.

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

The county hired Sawyer & Co. to conduct an internal controls review last year. The Dawsonville firm received about $94,000 for its work.

The result was a 114-page examination of 35 different departments. In those departments, 113 "significant deficiencies," or items to monitor, were found, as well as four "material weaknesses," or severe risks.

According to the report, two of those 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.

The report made recommendations regarding the two elections department items, which involved consulting agreements between former elections director Gary J. Smith and outside agencies and Smith's timekeeping records.

The recommendations on the items differed, however, depending on which draft of the Sawyer report was referenced.

The March 5 version of the report recommends "further investigation into potential legal, ethical and policy violations" within the voter registrar's office.

But the final draft, dated June 15, states that "further fact finding and review is recommended" regarding both weaknesses in that office.

Thomas and Jarrard said those were the only changes between the March 5 and final draft of the Sawyer report.

Documents obtained by the Forsyth County News under an open records request show communications between county officials and Sawyer & Co. between the March 5 draft and the June 15 final copy.

In a March 12 e-mail to David Sawyer, Thomas wrote about the then-latest draft of the document:

"I have not read it from cover to cover, but did cover the GS stuff. We will need to tone it down, eliminate it or refer to the Bates Carter report. So lets [sic] talk about it."

Thomas recently explained the meaning of his words in the e-mail.

"I really wanted to just refer back to the Bates Carter Report," said Thomas of a previous countywide audit that also looked at the elections department.

Smith's financial practices, including travel expenses and reimbursements, were questioned in the 2007 report from Bates, Carter and Co. The county's finance department conducted a separate audit.

The finance department audit resulted in Smith paying back about $234 and two days' pay.

"Those were poor choices of words on my part," Thomas said. "But I didn't want to rehash ... what we already knew back in November 2007."

According to Thomas, at the time of the e-mail, there was nothing new to report regarding the elections department.

However, an e-mail uncovered by Sawyer & Co. a short time later provided what Thomas called "direct evidence" that Smith had been paid by Election Science Institute, an organization that studies elections, at the same time he was paid by the county.

"The [ESI] e-mail really was the smoking gun on this," Thomas said.

Thomas said that while Smith could have used comp time during this stint, county policy states such actions be disclosed to the human resources department.

"He didn't do that," Thomas said.

Smith said he had never heard of that policy.

"Maybe it's a new regulation," Smith said.

Personnel Services Director Pat Carson said last week that, in fact, the policy is not new.

"That has been in place for a while," Carson said.

Smith's case is peculiar, because the position of chief voter registrar and elections board chairman is not considered a county employee.

Regardless, Carson said, the county required "that it be noted, recorded as such, in the timekeeping system when comp or personal time is used."

Smith's salary, benefits and expenses are paid with county funds.

Smith maintains that the entire issue stems from a "vendetta" against him by other Forsyth County officials.

"I'm the most convenient one to go after," he said.

"I think there's a lot of things in this county that needed to be looked at that are being swept under the rug," Smith said.

He said there were issues detrimental to the county not addressed in the Sawyer report.

David Sawyer, who prepared the report, said anytime a countywide audit is conducted "there's always going to be room for improvement."

Sawyer declined to comment specifically about the elections department "because the subject matter may involve a pending criminal investigation."

He did say, however, that he was "pleased with the product that resulted from all the work."

Following Sawyer's report, Thomas voiced his recommendation to the board: "Now we need somebody with the authority to issue subpoenas against ESI and get all the rest of the information we can't get."

According to the Sawyer Report, Smith was paid $7,500 for his work with ESI. Thomas said Smith was "paid by the county when he wasn't here and he got paid by ESI for the same work."

According to the report, Smith also 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.

The recent reorganization of the county's elections office 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