HOLBROOK — Navajo County Public Health Director Jeffery Lee figured prominently in the Arizona Auditor General’s audit of Navajo County for the fiscal year ending in June, 2019, and was asked to reimburse the county for improper expenditures to the tune of $5,643.92, says the Auditor General’s report obtained by The Independent.
Lee has been in the health director’s position since 2017 and is now spearheading the county’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. The irregularities in Lee’s spending outlined in the audit seem to involve errors or misunderstandings of record-keeping requirements which in government can be burdensome, to say the least, even to the most well-meaning of top county executives.
But taxpayer money is at stake in the county’s operations, and Navajo County “concurred” with the audit and submitted a “corrective action plan” in a letter to the auditor dated March 26, 2020.
At issue were Lee’s expenditures for such things as hotel rooms totaling $7,439, for which Lee “did not prepare travel forms ... and did not provide documentation to support the public purpose (“of the stay.”) The audit found fault with eight hotel stays because Lee used them to attend meetings in Phoenix which meetings only lasted one to four hours. Apparently, state regulations require a traveller from Holbrook to Phoenix to go back to Holbrook for the night after a four hour meeting in the Valley.
The county said that Lee’s travel was “verbally discussed and approved,” but Lee “did not properly document the trip on a county employee travel form as required by policy and did not adequately document the justification of the other purchases.” Lee stated that he did not deliberately intend to violate county policy.
Regarding “other purchases,” the audit says Lee spent $500 of county money on “electronic accessories like AirPods (Apple-style headphones)” and $133 for “staff appreciation items,” which hadn’t been approved in advance. The county notes in its March 2020 response letter that “Staff appreciation items are an allowable cost to help promote a positive work environment and help with employee retention,” and that Lee now understands he must get prior approval and “keep the required documentation.”
Lee travelled out of state a number of times during 2019, including trips to Florida, California and Pennsylvania which cost the county $2,119.00 says the audit, and although the travel may have been verbally approved, it lacked written pre-approval and other paperwork. With regard to the flights, Lee did charge the county $427.00 for “unallowed costs...including flight insurance, preferred seating and extra leg room,” says the report. Lee reimbursed the county for those expenses.
Other expenses that the auditor found objectionable included costs of meals, including “$402.00 for retirement and farewell meals, the Director organized, a meal he purchased on a personal trip for which he did not reimburse the County, and a meal purchased when lunch was provided at a conference.”
Other personal expenses included gift cards ($848.00) and personal cellular service purchases of $394.00. Lee wrote a check to the county for the cellular service expense, but the check never made it into the county’s bank account, the audit says. Lee explained he “inadvertently used his county p-card for personal expenses,” in other words, that some purchases were the result of simply taking the wrong credit card out his wallet, and he reimbursed the county for those.
In all, the audit says that Lee purchased $20,160 worth of goods and services that conflicted with County policies and lacked appropriate documentation, and the county paid for all these purchases. It seems like most of the expenses were in a gray area of legitimacy, but the audit found Lee must reimburse the county $5,642.92. But during the audit, Lee was found to be owed by the county $1678.86 for mileage expenses which he hadn’t claimed, so the net amount of reimbursement Lee paid to the county was $3,965.
For the county’s part, they pledge that they have “strengthened our internal controls and compliance,” provided training, and will “ensure that transactions related to travel are properly documented and the required approvals are documented.”
But the Auditor General isn’t done. They note that when “department directors do not follow established policies...they set an unfavorable tone that policies do to need to be followed.” Therefore, the Auditor General says, “At the time of this report’s release, these expenses were under further review by our Office.”
As far as the county is concerned, Navajo County Assistant Manager Bryan Layton told The Independent by email that: “We appreciate our partnership with the State Auditor’s Office to review the County’s finances each year. Auditors helped identify some purchases which did not comply with the required approval process, and these were subsequently repaid by the employee and appropriate internal measures have been taken.”