Commissioners reject whistle blower policy in 3-2 vote

Wil Petty

May 8, 2014

A proposed whistle blower policy was rejected by the Ashe County Board of Commissioners in a 3-2 vote during its regularly scheduled meeting Monday, May 5.

Commissioners Larry Rhodes and William Sands voted for the measure, while Gary Roark, Gerald Price and Judy Porter Poe dissented. The proposed policy was developed to help the Ashe County Sheriff’s Department receive grant money from the state, according to Patty Gambill, emergency management coordinator for the county.

“It’s a pretty straight forward policy,” she said. “It follows along with the federal whistle blower policy and it basically protects employees who report serious safety violations or violations of local, state and federal law.”

Gambill said last fall, Grady Price, with the Ashe County Sheriff’s Office contacted her about a grant they were trying to receive through the Governor’s Crime Commission. The grant would help provide tactical vests for the ACSO.

“The Crime Commission had added some new requirements to their grant application,” she said. “There are two policies (the commission) is now requiring. One is a whistle blower policy and the other is a procurement policy, neither of which Ashe County had.”

Gambill said the Personnel Policy Committee had reviewed the proposed policy, before presenting it to the Board of Commissioners.

Price said money is already appropriated to the sheriff’s office in each budget and he did not agree with having to meet more conditions in order for entities to receive money.

“I can’t understand the word or definition of grant if all these conditions, you do this or do that, to meet some sort of criteria to qualify for these grants,” he said. “The other side of it is, to me, it might be softly and tenderly, but it looks like to me it’s trying to turn people who work for this county into a police state, where Big Brother is watching on everybody and squealing on everybody.”

Price went on to say it could encourage somebody with a grudge to file a complaint.

Gambill said there were provisions in the policy for if someone filed false allegations against another employee.

“If nothing illegal is happening, there’s nothing to report,” she said.

Price said the policy on how to cover false allegations was “open to opinion.”

“It looks like we would be putting the county in a lot of potential litigation risk through this (proposal), he said.

Poe also expressed concern about the policy proposed to the Commissioners.

“We can’t legislate employee’s moral issues,” Poe said. “I don’t like the part in there about anonymous reporting. If someone finds fraud, they should be able to stand up and say, ‘OK, I see this wrong doing.’”

Poe said she also did not believe the policy needed to be four pages long.

“Only four other counties out of the 100 have a whistle blower policy,” she said. “I think that this is, I may be reading a little more into it, but no, I can’t support it.”

Gambill said the policy was a draft, and if any changes needed to be made they were open to any advice to make the changes.

“The whole point of this was to make sure the sheriff’s office does not lose grant money,” she said. “If (commissioners) want to make recommendations to us, we can go back to the drawing board and take those into account.”

Price then asked Gambill what her definition of a grant was, saying, “If I gave you a piece of candy, I would call that a grant. If I was to say, Patty, you need to sweep the floor to receive the candy, it would be conditional.” Price then said as far as he was concerned, North Carolina and the federal government could “keep their grant money.”

“It’s unfortunate that in this day and time grants are becoming more restrictive,” Gambill said. “In order to get them, you have to meet the eligibility requirements.”

Sands asked if changes could be made and the county still meet the criteria, to which Gambill said yes.

“I feel it is the responsibility of the employees to report these alleged violations,” he said. “I also feel like its our responsibility to protect those who do. I’m in favor of it, but it may need to be fine-tuned.”

Rhodes then made the motion to accept and Sands seconded.

Roark said the motion should have been discussed before being brought up to the Board.

Poe, after the vote, said she was not against grants.

“I know a lot of requirements and things in getting a grant,” she said. “As far as a whistle blower policy, nonprofits, all of the nonprofits are going to have some kind of whistle blower (policy).”

Gambill asked if they should redraft the proposal in order to try to continue to get the draft money. Rhodes said anything that can be done to receive the money for the sheriff’s office should be done.

The proposed policy

Ashe County’s proposed whistle blower policy is four pages long and defines fraud, as well as how the situations should be handled.

“Ashe County is committed to the highest standards of behavior by its employees, administrators and elected officials,” according to the policy. “The purpose of this policy is to encourage reporting of dishonest acts, fraudulent activity, activities that place others at risk and other improper actions.”

The proposed policy states the following as actions constituting fraud:

• Any dishonest or fraudulent act

• Forgery or alteration of a check, bank draft, or any other financial document or account

• Misappropriation of funds, securities, supplies or other assets

• Impropriety in the handling or reporting of money or financial transactions

• Accepting or seeking anything of material value from vendors, contractors, or other persons providing services/materials to Ashe County

• Using Ashe County funds to make unauthorized purchases

• Authorizing or receiving compensation for hours not worked

• Any similar or related inappropriate conduct.

In addition, the policy covers confidentiality, media issues, investigative procedures and protection against retaliatory action.

According to the policy, “Any person contacted by the media with respect to an investigation into fraudulent activity shall refer the media to the County Manager. The suspected fraud, audit investigation or improper action shall not be discussed with media by any person other than the County Manager.”

Also, the proposed policy stated “All participants in the investigation shall keep the details and results of the investigation confidential,” and the investigation information would not be discussed “with any one other than those who have a legitimate need to know,” protecting Ashe County from potential civil liability.

In the proposed policy, the County Manager would have the primary responsibility for investigating the improper activity, but could contact other individuals to “establish a team to investigate the suspected fraudulent or improper activity.”

Other counties with whistle blower policies

According to data provided to the Jefferson Post, there are significant differences between the whistle blower laws in some of North Carolina’s other counties and the one proposed in Ashe.

In Granville County, located northeast of Durham, the Board of Commissioners has an AlertLine system where employees can anonymously communicate knowledge of any unethical or illegal behavior.

“The Board encourages employees to anonymously submit information regarding questionable, unethical or illegal activities within the organization,” according to a statement from Granville County. “Examples include violations of the County’s Personnel Policy or other policies, violations of laws, or other possible fraudulent activities.”

In Randolph County, south of Greensboro, employees are encouraged to “raise serious concerns internally so that Randolph County can address and correct inappropriate conduct and actions.” Randolph County also states it is the responsibility of all employees to report concerns about violations.

According to Randolph’s policy, the Human Resources Director is responsible for the whistleblower complaints. Also the policy protects against false allegations.

“Anyone filing a complaint concerning a violation or suspected violation must be acting in good faith and have reasonable grounds for believing that a violation exists,” the policy states. “Making an unsubstantiated allegation maliciously or when known to be false will be viewed as a serious disciplinary offense.”

Neither Randolph or Granville counties have in their policies on how to handle media or how information would be disclosed to the public. In Randolph County, violations will “be kept confidential to the extent possible, consistent with the need to conduct an adequate investigation.”

Wil Petty can be reached at (336) 846-7164 or on Twitter @WilPetty.