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County addresses fraud

By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor

Bandera County Commissioners finally got around to adopting a policy on fraud to be added to the county personnel manual during a regular meeting on Thursday, Feb. 10.
The policy addressed the myriad aspects of official deception - fraud, waste, abuse and theft. After its adoption, the policy would apply to all county employees, department heads and elected officials.
An outside auditor recommended that the policy on fraud be added to the policy manual, according to County Auditor Christina Moeller, who presented the recommendations to the court.
"If we don't adopt a fraud policy, we'll be in trouble," commented Judge Richard Evans.
He added, "The fraud policy provides a mechanism as how it can be handled, but is not a presumption of guilt." Evans also noted that state statutes also cover the items included in the local policy on fraud.
Moeller's next statement was met with a stunned silence throughout the courtroom. She said, "The sheriff's office would be responsible for investigating complaints of fraud or waste."
As the only commissioner with the wherewithal to address the obvious, Precinct 2 Commissioner Bobby Harris said, "I hate to bring up this sore subject but our sheriff is under criminal indictment. If the sheriff is allegedly involved in illegal activity, how is he supposed to investigate fraud?"
Referencing a situation that culminated in a civil lawsuit against Bandera County and Sheriff Weldon Tucker, Harris also asked for clarification, "If a deputy accuses the sheriff of fraud, does he have to go to the sheriff and ask him to investigate himself?"
Everyone quickly realized that would be untenable. It was agreed that an employee's suspicion of fraud or waste should be reported to a supervisor, the sheriff or to the county attorney, depending on the accused. Evans admonished employees not to start an investigation on their own.
It was also decided that all examples of waste or fraud should be stricken from the policy as supervisors feared such examples might lead to micro-management.
The policy defines fraud as: "An intentional deception designed to obtain a benefit or advantage or to cause some benefit that is due to be denied." Waste is "the loss or misuse of county resources that results from deficient practices, system controls or decisions." Abuse is "the intention, wrongful or improper use of resources or misuse of rank, position or authority that causes the loss or misuse of resources such as tools, vehicles, computers, copy machines, etc." Theft was defined as "the act of taking something from someone unlawfully."
Evans reiterated that employees were not to initiate an investigation of any of the four illegal activities - fraud, waste, abuse or theft - on their own. Included in the fraud policy are instructions and information about reporting or handling possible instances of fraud:
• Do not contact the suspected individual to determine facts.
• Allow the office of the sheriff or the county auditor - or, the county attorney - to conduct the investigation.
• Observe strict confidentiality.
• Retaliation will not be tolerated.
• Every effort will be made to protect the rights and reputations of everyone involved, including the individual who, in good faith, alleges perceived misconduct, as well as the alleged violator(s).
Additionally, the policy protects the identity of the employee or other individual who reports a suspect act of fraud.
This policy directly mirrors a criminal case that resulted from the alleged misuse of a county rescue boat by Tucker. Former SGT. Scott Sharp asked former Deputy Mario Hernandez to take photographs of the unmarked boat which Tucker was keeping at his residence on a Tarpley ranch owned by BCSO Reserve Deputy Phil Becker in Tarpley. Hernandez was apparently observed taking the photographs and the sheriff subsequently terminated Hernandez and Sharp. Both men initiated civil lawsuits against Bandera County and Tucker.
Sharp's suit is on the verge of being settled out of court for an unspecified sum and litigation filed recently by Hernandez is just starting down the pipe.
Meanwhile, Tucker was indicted on a felony charge of abuse of official capacity relating to his alleged personal use of the county rescue boat. His criminal case, being prosecuted by the Office of the Texas Attorney General, has been set for trial on April 7 in the 216th District Court.