GOODLAND (KSNT) – Update: The Sherman County Board of Commissioners, held a “special meeting” Thursday, after Kansas Capitol Bureau broke the story about misuse of federal relief money in the community.
One of their commissioners, Rod Blake, opened the meeting with a motion, which was later adopted, to seek out a firm to conduct a full forensic audit of the entire Sherman County financial system to verify its integrity in full, “from top to bottom.”
“We’re sitting here today, and I’m speaking as County Commissioner, District 2… I’m not speaking for these guys, I’m speaking for myself… We’re sitting here today because I feel I got complacent… I got tunnel vision… I didn’t do my job,” Blake said. “I didn’t follow my gut, and that’s on me. I’m one third of this operation. I own it. Now, if it was going to do any good to run away and resign… and make excuses, that’s not how you fix problems. You fix problems, you stand there, you take your lumps, and you fix it… you do the best you can. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to do the best I can, and I’m hoping that everybody at this table will follow suit.”
“A lot of sleepless nights… a lot of thinking about this… a lot of ‘coulda, woulda, shouldas,'” he continued. “I feel the first important step is that we ensure the integrity of the entire county financial system.”
“For that reason, I reached out to the KAC. I got a list reputable firms, and I’m sure there’s many others. Not connected with Northwest Kansas… they’re out of the area… non-bias”
“There’s a lot of mistrust now… rightfully so. There’s a lot of speculation. The only way to put that to bed is to get this audit done, and at least secure that portion of this issue.”
Blake continued to say that “one phone call” to the Office of Recovery could have avoided the issue.
“I didn’t make that phone call… I made it 100 times in my head since then, but I didn’t make it when I needed to make it.”
HOW WILL THE COUNTY RECOVER MONEY?
Blake said that the county and “all the other counties were counting on those federal funds through the SPARK funds” to help pay for administrative fees.
He said that’s “out the window” now.
“We paid it through payroll, obviously, to be transparent… but obviously, that didn’t meet federal guidelines, so all the money had to be returned… $56 thousand five hundred and sixty something bucks and change… so, now those funds are not there to cover those administrative charges,” Blake said. “So, now it becomes a county taxpayer problem. It’s not a county taxpayer problem… it’s our problem.”
“There’s only one way to get this resolved… those funds have to be returned.”
“We have no right to put this on the backs of the taxpayers, because of inadequacy… opening that door… and that’s where we are. That’s my opinion.”
Blake said the County Attorney is getting opinions from other attorneys and an opinion from the AG office.
Kansas Capitol Bureau reached out to the Attorney General’s Office for comment on Thursday.
During the meeting, Commissioner Larry Enfield said one thing he doesn’t think is “fair” is that the blame seems to be falling on County Clerk Ashley Mannis and Deputy Clerk Maria Parish, who received more than $67 thousand through payroll to administer the money.
Enfield mentioned the previous private, contracted worker from Cook, who, he previously told Kansas Capitol Bureau, “left” before completing the job.
“I know it’s an exorbitant wage, but the what we looked at… the lady from Cook came and wanted at $150 an hour. I couldn’t understand why we would pay that kind of money, and it was explained because when you do that kind of work you’re taking on a lot of responsibility that hopefully keeps the county out of a lot of trouble,” Enfield said. “She subbed out to a lady in Russell, Kansas, which we didn’t know anything about until the paperwork started coming back here incorrectly with Ashley’s name on it. That’s when Ashley approached the Commission and said, ‘if this is going to have my name on it, I think I can do the work.’ We didn’t contract with her. We didn’t ask what it was going to cost. We just said everything you’ve done for us so far has looked good, so we said, ‘do it.'”
“We asked her to do it…we okay’d the payment… we made a mistake,” Enfield continued. “We should have had a contract… we should have looked at things closer, but we didn’t do it. We dropped the ball.”
Watch the full “special meeting,” here.
One Kansas county is reversing course after our Capitol Bureau identified the county clerk and her deputy pocketed more than $67,000 in federal relief money between 2020 and 2021.
Our Kansas Capitol Bureau is raising questions on whether it’s a mistake or fraud, and working to determine if taxpayers will be on the hook for the payments. The issue is swirling in Sherman County, home to the small town of Goodland where the county’s longtime treasurer stepped down after the “excessive” payments.
“I did see the account balances and the fund balances, and… the clerk had been paid several large amounts of money, as well as her deputy,” Hall said. “To add a $30,000 amount onto someone’s salary is a lot of money.”
Counties across Kansas received millions of dollars in Coronavirus Relief Funds (CRF) during the pandemic. The money was allocated through the state’s SPARK Taskforce along with an original set of guidelines for counties to follow, which was meant to align with federal guidance. The state’s Office of Recovery then collects and reviews the expense reports for each county. Monthly reports were expected to be issued from the Fall of 2020 onward, with any unreconciled expenses submitted in a March report.
Hall said she knew something seemed off after reviewing SPARK guidelines that recommended counties use 5% of the CRF allocation for administrative expenses. Under these guidelines, Sherman County, which received an allocation of nearly $1.2 million in expenses, would be allowed to spend up to $59,165.55 in administrative fees.
However, Hall said her records show that Sherman County Clerk Ashley Mannis and Deputy Clerk Maria Parish received thousands of dollars more than that amount, pushing the county’s spending for administrative expenses to more than $75,000.
“The county could have used it for projects or updates or upkeep that met the COVID qualifications,” Hall said. “Regulations say that any money that’s leftover was to be returned to the state then it would be allocated back out to counties that were short money. It just didn’t seem fair that they were paid that much money.”
HOW MUCH DID SHERMAN COUNTY SPEND?
Our Kansas Capitol Bureau requested an expense report for several counties, including Sherman County, from the Office of Recovery. A request was also made to the individual counties and the Sherman County Clerk’s Office.
The expense reports from the Sherman County Clerk’s office and the Office of Recovery show that in 2020, the County spent $18,547.89 in “Administrative Expenses.” According to the report, $10,542.01 was given to “Ashley Mannis/ Maria Parish.”
Then, in June and July of 2021, three large deposits are made under “Administrative Expenses” to “Ashley Mannis/ Maria Parish” adding up to $56,567.17.
In total, money going to “Ashley Mannis/ Maria Parish” added up to $67,109.18. This brings the total administrative fees paid for Sherman County to $75,115.
|Payment Date||Vendor/Recipient Name||Vendor/Recipient Tax ID||Payment Amount||Payment Method||Voucher/ Invoice #||Check/Advice #||Expenditure Category|
|8/18/2020||Catherine A. Domsch||$725.00||Check||1053||62117||Administrative Expenses|
|8/31/2020||Ashley Mannis/Maria Parish||$2,844.88||ACH||IVTR009007||Administrative Expenses|
|8/31/2020||Gina D. Riedel||$7,260.07||Check||124||62293||Administrative Expenses|
|9/15/2020||Ashley Mannis/Maria Parish||$1,199.93||ACH||IVPR20101||Administrative Expenses|
|11/2/2020||Ashley Mannis/Maria Parish||$1,835.47||ACH||IVPR20111||Administrative Expenses|
|12/14/2020||Ashley Mannis/Maria Parish||$2,258.44||ACH||IVPR20121||Administrative Expenses|
|9/30/2020||Ashley Mannis/Maria Parish||$2,403.29||ACH||IVPR20121||Administrative Expenses|
|6/14/2021||Ashley Mannis/Maria Parish||$11,129.64||ACH||IVPR2161||Administrative Expenses|
|6/28/2021||Ashley Mannis/Maria Parish||$11,040.04||ACH||IVPR2162||Administrative Expenses|
|7/25/2021||Ashley Mannis/Maria Parish||$34,397.49||ACH||IVPR2172||Administrative Expenses|
Our Kansas Capitol Bureau noticed this was more than what other neighboring counties allocated in administrative expenses.
Thomas County, which received about $1.5 million only paid $22,368 in administrative costs, according to their expense report.
Sheridan County, which received about $500,000 allocated $697.33 in administrative fees, according to the county’s expense report.
Even some counties that were allocated millions of dollars more from SPARK decided not to spend any money on administrative expenses. Sedgwick County, home to Wichita, which received $9.3 million from the state’s federal relief fund allocation, said no administrative fees were spent.
“The spreadsheet will show you all expenses, but no administrative fees were taken by the County from our SPARK allocation,” said Lindsay Poe Rousseau, chief financial officer for the Sedgwick County Division of Finance.
CHECKS AND BALANCES
Our Kansas Capitol Bureau also reached out to the Office of Recovery and Sherman County leaders over a two-day period to ask about the checks and balances in place for overseeing and approving the federal dollars that are spent.
We asked the Office of Recovery the following questions regarding Sherman County’s spending for “Administrative Expenses.”
- Did the SPARK committee approve all $1,183,311 of SPARK expenditures for Sherman County? If so, what was the process for approving these expenses?
- Through our research, we have identified $67,109.18 of that money was paid to the elected county clerk and non-elected deputy clerk for administering the funds. It’s our understanding this money was paid to them above and beyond their normal county salaries. Was this an appropriate use of tax dollars?
- What was the deadline for spending SPARK money? We noticed $68,794.98 of Sherman County’s expenses were dates in June 2021 and July 2021.
- It is our understanding counties were supposed to spend no more than 5% of its SPARK money on administrative expenses. Was this a strict guideline or a recommendation? What is your reaction to Sherman County spending more than 6% on administrative expenses?
A spokesperson for the Office of Recovery, RO, issued the following statement in an email on Wednesday.
The Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas (SPARK) Taskforce was established in May 2020 to oversee the distribution of funds from the Federal CARES Act to aid in the response and recovery to the COVID-19 pandemic. The SPARK Taskforce consisted of Governor-appointed representatives of the business and economic development community and members of the Kansas Legislature to determine spending priorities and recommend use of the funds. In the Spring of 2020, the Governor also established the Office of Recovery (RO). Per directives from the SPARK Taskforce, the RO is responsible for the administration and distribution of Coronavirus Relief Funds (CRF) in compliance with state and federal requirements.
In June of 2020, the SPARK Taskforce allocated $400 million CRF to 105 counties across the state based on population and impact of COVID-19. To receive funds, each county signed a resolution agreeing to the federal requirements and submitted a plan describing spending intentions for eligibility review and approval by the Office of Recovery. Counties were required to submit monthly expenditure reports that reconciled with their plan. As part of the $400 million SPARK Taskforce distribution to counties, Sherman County received an allocation of $1,183,311. The RO received an updated report from Sherman County on April 25, 2022, which has been previously provided to you. Once the RO received the updated report, it notified Sherman County that it would need to return funds for certain expenditures that were ineligible per state and federal guidance.
The RO provides guidance to CRF and American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) Local Fiscal Recovery Fund (LFRF) recipients on federal allowability and best practices. However, counties are solely responsible for LFRF compliance as direct recipients of those funds from the federal government. If there is any suspected fraud, waste, or abuse related to federal CRF and ARPA LFRF funds, the RO shares the reports that may warrant further investigation with the appropriate law enforcement agency for review.Kansas Office of Recovery
Kansas Capitol Bureau also asked Sherman County leaders, including the county attorney and board of county commissioners, to break down individual payments made to Ashley Mannis and Maria Parish, along with the following questions:
- What was the process for determining how Sherman County approved SPARK transactions? Who made decisions on how the money was spent?
- What was the process for paying the SPARK payments to Ashley Mannis and Maria Parish? Who authorized the payments and who was in charge of initiating the payments to their bank accounts or paychecks? When answering this question, we’re trying to identify the checks and balances you have in place for applying additional payments or bonuses to the paychecks of county employees.
- Were you aware of the SPARK guidelines suggesting counties spend no more than 5% of SPARK money on administrative expenses? By our calculation, the county spent more than 6% of its SPARK allocation on administrative expenses.
County Commissioner Larry Enfield responded in a phone call with Kansas Capitol Bureau on Wednesday.
Enfield said that the Clerk and her deputy were keeping track of their hours. He said this could have totaled to about 370 hours “outside” of their normal hours.
As for who approved the money, he said there was a committee that determined what would be the best way to set up the process for approving SPARK transactions.
According to Enfield, the county contracted with a couple of people from private firms prior to help disperse the money, but it fell through. The initial person the county contracted with, a lady from Cook, left before completing her job, citing “too many clients.” He said the Clerk was then put in charge of how the money was dispersed.
“This is what started the whole problem in the county… because people were like ‘oh my gosh, how can you pay a county clerk that kind of money?’ What she does after hours, which is what she did all this after hours, is a different story,” Enfield said.
Enfield explained that “we wouldn’t be having this conversation” if the initial contracted workers “did their job,” because it would be contracted personnel.
He said the Commission was “fine” with the amount the Clerk paid herself and the deputy, and that they are now having to rectify the money because it was paid through payroll. He said the issue is that it was not identified as contracted work.
“There was just a lot of bad decisions made here… we should have probably had a lot of more information before we contracted with the lady from Cook, then she should have contacted us before she moved things over to Russell, before she did it, so we could have made another decision there, and probably with Ashley, we should have asked a lot more questions, well how many hours you think this might take, give us an estimate, stuff like that, but we trust her… she’s always done a good job, and so we just said get it done,” he said.
“So we made some poor decisions,” he continued. “And like I say, regardless of what the decisions are, we’ve always told everybody, we’ve made a mistake, we’ll fix it.”
COUNTY REVERSES COURSE
While Sherman County leaders didn’t respond to questions until Wednesday, Kansas Capitol Bureau, received an email from Sherman County Clerk Ashley Mannis, shortly after a Board of County Commissioners meeting on Tuesday.
Mannis said that the county is issuing a new report to the Office of Recovery in July.
The report that you previously requested showing the SPARK fund activity is no longer accurate,” Mannis said. At the time of your request we were working with the Office of Recovery to determine whether certain expenses met federal guidance after a question was raised to the commission. A revised report will be submitted to the Office of Recovery by July 15th.Ashley Mannis, Sherman County Clerk
However, initial concerns over the county’s decision to give money to both Mannis and Deputy Clerk Maria Parish date back to March. In a copy of meeting minutes from March 15, under the headline “SPARK Discussion,” said that Sherman County Commissioner Steve Evert “stated that he wanted to address community concern that they have heard regarding SPARK funding.”
It continues to say that “Ashley’s name” was on reports coming back from the state with corrections needing to be made, so “she made the corrections and continued the reports from then on.”
According to the minutes, Evert stated that “Ashley and Maria fulfilled the contract for reporting and did so on their own time and the time was tracked.”
“He stated that the funds have been reviewed by the Office of Recovery and there were no negative findings,” Evert said.
Evert made a motion to “close the issue,” however, it reappears in meeting minutes from April 19, when he directs the County Clerk and Ryan Murray, who was a member of a local SPARK Taskforce and is the Emergency Manager for Sherman County, to reach back out to the Kansas Office of Recovery to review funds on behalf of the county to make sure there were not any errors.
The Office of Recovery didn’t respond to questions about whether the payments made to Mannis and Parish were among Sherman County’s ineligible expenses or if they had contacted law enforcement about those payments.
In a meeting Tuesday, Murray responded to County Commissioners with a response, he said, was from the Office of Recovery.
“Just to follow up, as requested at a previous meeting, the Commission took action to reach out to the Kansas State Office of Recovery to determine whether or not Sherman County had any issues with related certain approved expenses with the CARES Act funds previously. It was requested that I assist with this action as a local official, who was not connected to the expenses in question. The state Office of Recovery has determined that some administrative expenses did not meet federal guidance under the CARES Act, because those expenses were made through county payroll, and because they were made after the day allowed by the resolution. They have determined that those funds will need to be returned and the county will need to rectify them.”
Sherman County Commissioners then motioned to rectify the CARES Act money. As for how the money will be paid back, Sherman county leaders have not responded to those inquiries. A spokesman for the Office of Recovery sent Kansas Capitol Bureau a response explaining why their office can not respond.
As this is an ongoing situation pending final closeout of ineligible expenditures the RO does not have any additional information to provide at this time.Office of Recovery