Claiborne County officials told to repay funds for poor|[11/16/05]

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Former members of a Claiborne County poverty board were helping themselves to money intended for operations and must repay $220,832, State Auditor Phil Bryant said in a demand letter made public today.

&#8220The board members were paying themselves $1,000 per meeting and were making unauthorized donations to entities within Claiborne County,” a news release from Bryant’s office said. &#8220Also, the resource board authorized giving Wal-Mart gift cards as presents to the board staff.”

The total demand from individual members includes interest and investigative costs for misuse of public money by former Claiborne County Human Resource Board members Ronald Odom, chairman; Dennis Daniels; Doretha Rankin; Roosevelt Hill (now deceased); Lee Ethel King; Norma T. Lewis; and Mary J. Walls.

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They were responsible for the county’s public transportation program, James Miller, county administrator, and Hugh Johnson, who now directs the human-resource board, said today.

Bryant said the state probe showed the board members misused federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families funds that flowed to the board through the Mississippi Department of Human Services. The news release indicates the misappropriations continued even after the board members were advised to stop.

None of the former members accused remains on the board and that board is no longer responsible for TANF funds for the county, Miller said.

Each member listed except Lewis is responsible for repaying between $28,200 and $39,000; Lewis is responsible for repaying $2,771, the release says.

&#8220The unauthorized contributions went to the Amazing Grace Day Care Center, Open Arms Christian Center, Port Gibson High School and the Hermanville Cemetery,” the release says.

The board members are also accused of paying themselves $1,000 each per meeting from May 2001 until July 2002, a total of $98,000.

Johnson, who said he became director of the agency in 2003, said a new board now operates the county’s transportation program. It employs nine people, six drivers and three office workers, and has six buses, Johnson said. The agency’s current annual budget was unavailable.

&#8220The blatant and wanton misuse of taxpayers’ monies, especially those designed to assist families in need, cannot be tolerated,” Bryant said. &#8220It is the duty of this office to do all that is necessary to recover and return such monies and see that they are awarded properly.”

The board members were bonded and letters demanding repayment of the funds have been sent to the former board members and their bonding companies, the release says, which will be expected to cover the state’s losses. Criminal prosecution is possible, but a spokesman for Bryant’s office, S. Ross Aldridge, said the matter was being handled by the state as a civil action.

After the self-payments began, the board members were notified of a September 2001 opinion from the state attorney general’s office saying the board was unauthorized to do so. Still, the release says, the payments and donations continued.