The Texas Rangers and FBI visited some Ballinger city council members at their homes on Wednesday, December 5th to conduct an inquiry into the money from 3 CDs cashed in by the city in 2015. City administrator Tommy Turney has been looking into the matter since councilman Bob McDaniel brought it up at the council meeting on November 5th. Turney said that the agents came to see him at city hall and they then went to the sheriff’s office, “We went over to the sheriff’s office and they talked to me for about 3 hours.” Turney couldn’t elaborate further due to it being an ongoing investigation.
One source who has been reliable since the investigation by Turney began said that a thumb drive showing 2 people shredding some documents late one evening after dark at city hall was turned over to Texas Ranger Jason Shea. The video was from a couple of weeks ago after the second city council meeting regarding the missing funds. The two people in the video are easily identifiable but I am not printing their names due to the investigation. It could be that there is nothing nefarious about the incident and to print their names might paint it as such and it would be irresponsible to do so.
The point that seems to have been lost in all of this is that a question is not an accusation. Any governing body that truly believes in transparency should welcome questions, and they should be answered with honesty and not frustration. The danger is when elected officials act as though they know what is best and don’t feel the need to explain it, or find it too laborious to explain. The current Ballinger city council has done a great job and we’ve written at length about the commendable job Turney is doing.
Things took a bit of a turn recently and I’ll explain how; During the December 3rd city council meeting, the subject of the “missing” money was brought up. The council said that they had prepared a press release regarding the money and that none of it was missing. I read the press release and it wasn’t completely accurate but ultimately, during the meeting, it was decided not to release it. It said that the council was confident that $192,000 that Turney is still looking for was not misspent or otherwise lost and is accounted for. Turney himself said that he still had not found the $192,000.
City councilman Rick Morrish said that the newspaper was incorrect in its previous articles regarding this situation with the “missing” 3 CDs totaling $360,000.00. The paper has been accused of throwing previous councils and city administrators under the proverbial bus. Ballinger city attorney Pat Chesser said that he “cringed” when he read the article in the paper last week. At no point did the newspaper accuse anyone of theft or embezzling. Facts were brought up, all of them by various council members and/or the auditor. The facts are thoroughly covered in the previous editions of the newspaper dating back to November.
Let’s reflect back to this line written in the November 5th article regarding the CDs: “Turney began his investigation the following day, looking in to the previous spending and accounting failures of the city. I received documents at the newspaper from a source familiar with the investigation. It should be noted that there have been no accusations of theft or misappropriation. The missing $360,000 could simply have been spent without the expenditures being noted, as seems to be the case with most every accounting aspect in the recent past.”
I put the important part of that statement in bold so anyone who possibly over-looked that in the original article might see it this time.
Why stop asking questions and create a press release that Turney himself said was not factual. Turney has been up-front and honest the entire time and chose to not whitewash it with a press release obviously written by someone else for him to sign.
Now we can go over the timeline of events and look at quotes and look at some who seem to have lost interest in the issue of the money and seem to want to “move on.”
Every council member asked questions when the issue was first brought up, as they should have. Some were more vocal than others but all demanded answers.
During the November 5th city council meeting councilman Bob McDaniel brought up a missing CD, that eventually turned out to be 3 CDs, totaling $360,000.00.
During that November 5th meeting councilman Jason Gore said, “I want to know why we’re in the financial status we’re currently in, to find out where the money has gone. It really concerns me that our credit rating has dropped so much.”
That is in the original article.
Another councilman, Rick Morrish, also spoke up at the November 5th meeting, “I want to know where the $125,000 went.”That was also in the article. That is in the video from the council meeting.
Morrish continued and was further quoted, “It boils down to a lot of the time the council is not being informed of what is going on in the city. We need to be informed.”
Auditor Gayla Fullerton had written the city council a letter, which was included in the first article, “One of the recommendations was; “The City did not have a master list of assets and values. We recommend the city create an accurate list of all assets, the date acquired, purchase price and location/use.” And there were further recommendations:
‒ The balance of customer deposits being held by the City water department is not current. We recommend these holdings be adjusted accordingly.
‒ There are old outstanding checks in bank accounts. We recommend all checks outstanding over one year be voided and reissued if needed.
‒ The water and sewer department has many old outstanding accounts receivable. We recommend the water department write off all outstanding accounts receivable more than two years old and make an effort to collect outstanding accounts quarterly.
‒ In the opinion of the Auditor, it is imperative that the city staff be cross- trained in financial management including payroll, cash balancing, general ledger entries and monthly balancing of bank accounts.”
The letter from Fullerton with the recommendations was posted in the newspaper.
Copies of the cashed out CDs and notes were also published in that newspaper article.
City administrator Tommy Turney summed it up perfectly in that article, “It’s the city manager’s job and the city secretary’s job to investigate this and work on making the needed changes. The council is asking questions just like they are supposed to and doing their job well.”
And there was the part about 3 loans for the police department, only 2 of which chief Stan Maresch knew of. The council itself brought up that concern. Another incident of the council and city not knowing at the time where the money went or what it was for. Yet there were no accusations of theft or misappropriation, just some people wanting to know about the money. I could be nothing more than poor record keeping.
Now we get into the second story in this newspaper, from the city council meeting of November 17th.
This was written in that article; “Whether the financial woes are due to corruption or just mismanagement and bad decisions is moot at this point. There will be time to focus on the past once the city knows what is going on in the present.”
A council member brought up the original issue about one CD that became 3 CDs and the council encouraged an investigation into the $360,000. Turney dug into it and found some of the money. There was the issue of the $225,000 grant money and not knowing if it was received or how it was spent. There were accounting errors. There was a lack of oversight. Facts.
But at the December 3rd council meeting it suddenly seemed that the council had a press release prepared that said they were confident that all of the money was accounted for.
Why issue a press release saying that the money had been accounted for if you don’t actually know where it is, as if to say, “Move on, nothing to see here, the council knows and is “confident” the money is accounted for.” That is disingenuous at best.
City attorney Pat Chesser said that the money was probably put into the general fund to pay bills and so therefore it is accounted for. Morrish took issue with the newspaper’s story, yet Morrish himself wanted an investigation into the money when this all began. It’s all documented. There are videos of the council meetings online.
And still no one is saying that the money was stolen. No one ever has. The problem is the city’s accounting practices. That fact that was brought up by the accountant’s letter. But someone on the council decided to try and whitewash the whole thing with a press release as if to say, “End of story.”
It was even brought up to me by a trustworthy source that a previous city council member talked to a couple of the current council members and “explained it all.” Then why can’t that be explained at the council meeting? Why was it not brought up that, “Former council member John Q explained it and here is where the money went,” and then give an honest explanation? Turney could check out the information and confirm it.
They could use that info to help the investigation. Why are there behind-the-scenes conversations going on yet no one seems to want to explain it? Why not ask that former council member to come to the council meeting and give the explanation? Do the people not deserve that explanation? Does that person not feel comfortable coming out and publicly saying that they know how the money was spent? I was given the name of the former councilman but have not talked to that person at this time.
The questions continue to go unanswered even as new questions arise.
When the CD issue was first brought up, why did 3 of the people elected or appointed to positions on the council, who were there in 2015, not speak up about the issue if they knew where the money was spent? You’d think that if the budget went over by a couple of hundred thousand dollars that council members from that time might remember that. It isn’t just a token amount of money. The council votes on a budget so with the CDs being cashed in they either needed to make a significant equipment purchase or use it for unforeseen expenditures. There was even a former council member who was on the council in 2015 in attendance at some of the meetings over the last 5 weeks who didn’t speak up. Some people seem to want to hang out in the shadows when they could seemingly shed some light on the situation.
It’s easy to look at; If a council approves a budget of $1,000,000 and they run out of money 9 months later and need to cash in some CDs, they should vote on that and say, “Well, we spent our budget and need to buy this $500,000 excavator so we cashed in some CDs.”
Questions abound around town. These are questions that add depth to the other questions about how the city and council previously operated in a way that let one person cash out the CDs and one person determine how to spend the $360,000 in whichever way he saw fit, allegedly without a council vote. It was said in the December 3rd council meeting that there was never a vote on it by the council. That is a fact according to the council itself.
If it is a simple accounting oversight, there should be some record of it, which there probably is, they just have to find it deep in the minutes of 2015 or 2016. As someone said, “It’s probably there” but until it’s shown that it’s there, it isn’t actually there.
That makes the would-be waffling on making a press release that wasn’t entirely accurate even more concerning. If you tell people that you are confident that you know where the money went, then tell the people where the money went. If you aren’t confident and you pull something ill advised action like trying to whitewash it with a press release then deciding not to, it doesn’t look good. You’re basically saying that you weren’t actually confident because if you were, you’d have had the confidence to release that press release.
No one was throwing any previous council under that proverbial bus. Facts were brought up and questions were asked. There were accounting errors, there was no oversight or if there was the council can come out and say that it was all done right. There is more than just one person responsible for that.
The citizens of Ballinger deserve to know where their money is being spent. If questions or articles that ask for answers make people at the city cringe, why is that? Why cringe? Why worry about questions? Why not simply answer them?
It was brought up that council minutes from 2015 had them discussing some of the money from the CDs but so far there are no large purchases that have been located.
There was a great deal of work that was done with paving a street and purchasing some paving equipment. If the money went into that after being cashed in and then put in the general fund then that is fine, just show the records.
And if a previous city official came in and had meetings with a couple of council members and explained it to them, why can’t it be explained to the public? Or did he not have the $192,000 answer, or the $360,000 answer or the $225,000 grant answer?
I don’t think anyone believes that previous administrations stole money but there were proven accounting problems and the money from 3 CDs that was “missing.” If any monetary concerns are brought up, it should be investigated. It’s the duty of the elected officials to look into it, not to back off and stop pursuit of answers with the same vigor as before. To supposedly be assuaged by a former politician but not explain it clearly to the public is a disservice and it’s fortunate that the council members didn’t follow that path. Keeping to the tough path speaks favorably of the council as a body.
The only reason a newspaper article that asks questions would be worrisome by some is because they don’t want to answer the questions or don’t feel the public has a need to know. That’s unacceptable. If it’s “alarmist” and should be dismissed out-of-hand as sensationalizing something minor why would someone not consider $360,000 alarming? It is alarming, and rightfully so.
Honesty is not a hard concept and stress is caused when people try to hide things, it isn’t a side effect of open, honest communication.
There are lines of communication because current Ballinger city attorney Pat Chesser is also the city attorney for Willow Park, where former Ballinger city administrator Bryan Grimes is the current city manager.
Former council members stepping in to talk to current council members without being forthcoming to the public lends itself to creating or reinforcing other rumors already circulating around town.
And still, no one is saying that the money was stolen or misappropriated, they just want to know what happened and where it was spent. An investigation either by the city administrator, FBI or Texas Rangers is not a conviction and the investigation deserves a chance to run its course.
If nothing else comes of it, the investigation will at least get Turney’s office on level ground and he will have a point to work from to ensure issues like this don’t arise again.
Councilwoman Kristi Brundige-Goetz commented for this article, "Regardless of whether the Texas Rangers come in, we are being proactive and have hired an auditor to help us get our books lined out and to set up proper checks and balances."
Bob McDaniel said it best when he said, “Keeping the public informed develops a conscience and helps people ask the right questions.”
The next city council meeting is December 17th at 5:30 p.m. at city hall. Lately the numbers of attendees has increased and it should continue increasing. People should show up, if for no other reason than to show their support for Turney and the council as they weather the storm. The public should ask questions and take part in the meetings. And as pointed out earlier, a question is not an accusation; it’s just the path to knowledge and understanding.