SPRING LAKE, N.C. (WNCN) – Back in June, an 86-page investigative report by the North Carolina State Auditor’s Office revealed that over the last five years, there were more than $485,000 in purchases that were in violation of Spring Lake’s town policies or were questionable.
The exact numbers were $366,000 in purchases that violated the town’s policies and another $122,000 in questionable purchases.
“Surprised and extreme disappointment,” North Carolina State Auditor Beth Wood said of the findings.
Spring Lake is a bedroom community. According to the latest census, its population is just over 13,000 people. But homeowners said their taxes kept going up, they couldn’t understand why.
CBS North Carolina spoke with Rita Perry, one of those frustrated homeowners, and she said she called the auditor’s office.
Wood said those behind the questionable purchases were 63 town employees, the mayor and three board members.
“The bags that were bought, the gift cards that were given away, I mean that’s not how citizens in a town expect their dollars to be spent,” she said.
The town manager, Ken Metcalf, resigned.
Interim Finance director Tina West was fired.
CBS North Carolina stopped by their homes but they declined to comment. Alderman James O’Garra had plenty to say.
“The town was not anywhere near what the audit came up with,” O’Garra said.
One of O’Garra’s purchases was among the 1,400 flagged in the audit.
“I purchased an air conditioner for the town. The unit was something that was needed at the park,” he said.
O’Garra believes many of the purchases in the audit may have gone to benefit the people of the town. They just didn’t have the right paperwork to show that.
“The audit was kind of blown out of proportion,” he said.
The problem is not unique to Spring Lake.
In April 2013, a state audit found questionable spending in the town of Princeville. More than $8,000 in dining, gas and hotels was put on the town’s credit card. Embezzlement charges were brought against the town’s former mayor, but the SBI later dropped those charges.
In 2014, a state audit found hundreds of thousands of dollars in improper spending in Tarboro. It included purchases for boating supplies that was charged to the town’s electric department. Tarboro doesn’t have a boat, though.
Wood told CBS North Carolina that her office doesn’t have the power to charge anyone. She can only refer the reports to county district attorneys and the State Bureau of Investigation. If it doesn’t involve state money, the county DA has to ask for SBI’s help.
“We see it more, way more than we should. It happens all too often that you hear the same arguments that the city council members and the mayor will say, ‘Well I was depending on the finance officer. I was depending on the finance director.’ And that’s a way of them shuffling off the responsibility,” Wood said.
As for the Spring Lake case, Cumberland County District Attorney Billy West declined CBS North Carolina’s request for any interview. A committee is now reviewing all 1,448 questionable purchases. The new town manager, Tad Davis, is on it and said they’re about halfway through.
“As we got through all those we’re making a deliberate effort to look at the actual charges that were made, when they were made and what we ask the employee to do is to provide additional documentation,” Davis said.
West said his office would wait for the results of that committee before deciding on criminal charges. The committee results, Davis told CBS North Carolina, should be in by early October.