Monday, July 18, 2011

McPurchasing practices strain credibility

Waco – The McLennan County budget has been described by County Commissioners and the former County Auditor Adam Harry, recently promoted to Budget Director, as a "living document."

You breathe life into it as needed – as if performing emergency resuscitation.

Apparently, the money situation on the muddy banks of the Brazos just eases along from one little crisis to another, requiring that breath of life on a fairly routine basis as the Court authorizes the transfer of funds from one account to another and approves "ratification" of transactions that have been routed around the purchasing office in dazzling end runs and double reverses that would have fooled even the mightiest of the mighty linebackers such as the Legendary Bob Lilly or the estimable Dick Butkus - Too Tall Jones, Harvey Martin, even Massa Tom Landry in his hey day with the New York Giants.

The deal is this. In McLennan County, you don't have to get a purchase order when you spend thousands of dollars. That is, you don't if no one is looking.

All you have to do is go ahead and buy, then request that the members of the Commissioners' Court ratify the purchase, even though the county's own procedures call for first obtaining a purchase order from the county's purchasing officer.

Legal or illegal, proper or improper, the docuemnts don't lie. It's a matter of routine to go around or ignore purchasing procedures when it comes to spending taxpayer money.

County Judge Jim Lewis decided to buy $9,300 worth of service pins and diamonds for employees with long-term service to the county.

(Cue Sinatra and the kids lacing into "Baubles, bangles, see how they ring-ting-a-ling-a," etc.)

He bought them from Robt. W. Cox Jewelers, Inc., on June 30, tax exempt, according to the invoice. On the same day, Cody Miles of the Judge's office filled out a purchase requisition for 39 pins at $204 apiece and 32 diamonds at $42 each.

On July 19, he will request ratification of the purchase at the regular Tuesday morning session of Commissioners' Court. “PO#:N/A”, the requisition form reads. The box for bid price and delivery dates are left blank.

The question has come up before, calling for an opinion based on legal research by then Criminal District Attorney John Segrest.

At the time, Commissioner Kelly Snell was new on the job and asked his administrative assistant to check out a purchase of software already acquired from a computer outfit named MSE – price, $5,000, plus ongoing payments for maintenance and updates.

The company supplied a trial version of the software, which was used for a short period and found to be worth the money, none of which had yet changed hands.

When then County Auditor Steve Moore was asked to counter-sign a check for that sum, he asked for the opinion of the DA as to “whether given the circumstances of this acquisition you are allowed or precluded from auditing, approving and paying the invoice.”

The record showed that a “requisition for purchase” listed MSE under suggested vendor and that “All goods and/or services circled above have been received in good order (although nothing was circled).”

Since the purchase was not initiated by the purchasing department, no purchase order was issued, Mr. Segrest noted.

Mr. Moore's question:

“Can the McLennan County Auditor audit and approve the purchase of the Precinct Tracker Software, an intangible asset with a useful life dependent on future payments for a maintenance agreement, set forth in the 'Purchase Description' at the beginning of this letter, and, after approval of the expenditure by the Commissioners' Court, co-sign the check with the County Treasurer for payment of the same in the amount of $5,000, or would such action be prohibited due to the fact that the requisition was prepared several weeks after delivery of the product and that the purchase was not initiated by the purchasing agent.”

Mr. Segrest began by saying that though state law allowed him to give an opinion, “However, the duty imposed on me...does not bind you to act in accord with this opinion or advice. An opinion of this nature has no force of law.”

Quoting a 1980 holding of the First District Court of Appeals at Houston, Comm'rs Court v. Fullerton, Mr. Segrest, said, “The county auditor...cannot delegate his official duties to another, other than his duly appointed deputies.”

He added, “It is ultimately your duty under the statutory mandate of office to decide whether to approve a claim, bill, or account,” according to the Texas Local Government Code.

Someone had their knife out for Mr. Snell's administrative assistant, who was as new on the job as Mr. Snell. Somebody wanted her arrested and charged with a criminal offense.

The DA declined prosecution when he learned that no real possession of the property described in the requisition had as yet been effected.

Quite simply, there was no case because what had been acquired was merely a demonstration copy of the $5,000 “Precinct Tracker” software. The purchase price, when paid, would result in delivery of a permanent copy, which would be maintained and updated at additional expense under the terms of a contract.

Mr. Segrest concluded that though the letter of the law did not really apply to the transaction under scrutiny, “...its inapplicability does not alter the general rule that an individual county employee or office holder does not have the authority to make county acquisitions, unless expressly given the authority to do so.”

He added, “The ill-advisedness of the process here employed appears to have been discovered at some point...Had Purchasing been an unnecessary step in the McLennan County purchasing scheme, no pre-aquisition requisition would be needed.”

Now, what would you pay?

But, wait, there's more!

To add to this confusing parade of strange purchases approved by the Court, including trading a diesel 4-door Dodge pickup with a blue book value of $9,000 for $3,000 for Commissioner Ben Perry's operation, and the acquisition of a used truck with 40,000 miles on it for an additional $23,000, it has come to light that the Texas Rangers are presently investigating a similar arrangement made by Tax Assessor-collector Buddy Skeen. Wiser heads prevailed. The used truck went back to the lot and they traded for a new, "plain Jane" model rather than the Cowboy Cadillac the road and bridge supervisor picked out of the dealer's inventory. Same price - new truck with no miles on it.

This deal is as abstruse and hard to follow as any horse trade ever made between back country brother-in-laws.

According to published reports, present District Attorney Abel Reyna turned the facts over the Rangers when he learned that Mr. Skeen “may have profited improperly” when he sold a truck owned by his office to Richard Karr Motors for $22,000.

The pickup he sold was originally purchased with interest funds earned from the Vehicle Inventory Tax fund. Employees used the truck to drive to substations on official business.

He left the GMC-Pontiac dealership with his $22,000, according to an audit, and put in in the proper bank account, but allegedly returned later in the day and purchased a new GMC – black, a Texas Edition – using the same $22,000 trade-in credit he earned from the one he sold earlier. According to the audit report, this allegedly resulted in a corresponding credit against the purchase price of the new vehicle and a $1,300 reduction in the sales tax.

In addition, there have been complaints that county employees of the Tax Assessor-Collector's office have used credit cards owned by McLennan County to fill their personal vehicles when on errands to substations operated by the office.

Mr. Skeen has held the office since 1988 and has come under Grand Jury scrutiny involving allegations that he failed to pay sales taxes after transferring autos he bought for family members. The Grand Jury returned no bill after an Assistant Attorney General presented the case to them behind closed doors.


  1. Were the employee tokens honoring employee service years, ordered by the County Judge's personnel (under authority of Mr. Lewis)? This is likely, as that has been the procedure since this purchase began decades ago, when accounting procedures were minimal, purchasing agents, and bid requirements non-existent? If so, and in the absence of fraud, or unfair discrimination for or against any vendor, then criminal intent is not present, regardless if an accounting procedure was overlooked (the County Auditor has authority to prescribe accounting procedures, and the Purchase Order system was installed under Steve Moore's time). In many ways, County business is handled in the "that's the way we've always done it," principle, and evidentally, until all traces of the Weldon Wells "chief financial officer" concept are completely erased, these type errors will innocently occur. The VIT truck, is another matter, as those funds are completely in control of Mr. Skeen, and as such, co-mingling assets from that fund into County assets (especially if county funds are increased or decreased in the process, or even if the transaction is a "wash"), is inappropriate and illegal, regardless of the $ value involved. Buddy should know that, and be conservative in his dealings, or someone might claim that power corrupts.

  2. Quite, sir. Precisely.
    The Legendary

  3. Thanks for spending the time to describe the terminology towards the newbies! Probably one of the more interesting reads in awhile.Job Requisition Form