Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Accusations of financial wrongdoing against public administrators is an old story in Buchanan County.

After Controversy and Transition, Focus is on Rebuilding Trust (10/1/06)
Public administrator’s office has history of abuse

Alyson Raletz, Courthouse Reporter

Charlie Lau, the newly appointed Buchanan County public administrator, heads back to the office on Fourth Street recently after going to the bank. (TODD WEDDLE/St. Joseph News-Press)

Accusations of financial wrongdoing against public administrators is an old story in Buchanan County.

About 20 years old.

A judge authorized two search warrants last month for former Public Administrator Bonnie Sue Lawson's office after a St. Joseph detective asserted money had been taken from at least three of her clients' accounts without authorization or court orders. Federal, state and city authorities continue to probe her records, but no criminal charges have been filed.

She submitted her resignation Aug. 21 - one.

Ms. Lawson unseated another public administrator caught up in missing funds speculation in the 1996 Democratic primary. The incumbent, Ron Rosenauer, that year had to repay $1,725 after his office had double-billed the county 19 times for services to disabled people - two.

And in 1987, former Public Administrator Terry Rumery pleaded guilty to stealing and official misconduct after he confessed to embezzling more than $40,000 from estates under his supervision - three.

Mr. Rumery took office in 1984, but resigned in 1986 before serving about six months in the Buchanan County Jail. He was placed on five years probation and ordered to pay restitution. His secretary also later received a county jail sentence for stealing from the office.

Mr. Rumery now lives in Chillicothe, Mo., and declined a News-Press interview.

"You're kidding," Cape Girardeau County Public Administrator Phyllis Schwab said after learning Buchanan County's history.

Ms. Schwab called Buchanan County's interim Public Administrator Charlie Lau shortly after the Aug. 29 appointment and advised him to change the office to a salary-based one. Ms. Schwab in 2001 opted for her office to move from a fee-based system - in which she personally would've reaped the fees from handling client accounts - to a salary-based system, where the county receives the fees.

That was the first year the state gave public administrators the option, but Ms. Lawson decided to keep the fee-based office. Ms. Lawson was Buchanan County's highest-paid official in 2005, as her gross compensation totaled $145,554.07.

"It puts a better light on our office," Ms. Schwab said. "Then it doesn't matter how many clients we have ... and it takes away a lot of the questions about the fees."

Mr. Lau heeded her advice and chose to take a fixed salary over collecting fees from clients. As a result, no Buchanan County public administrator ever can return to the old system, according to Buchanan County Clerk Pat Conway.

"Maybe that will take away the perception people might have. ... Clients wonder how their accounts are being handled," Mr. Lau said. "We've lost the integrity and trust in this office - and we aim to get it back."

Ms. Schwab explained public administrators can face many temptations, or "questionable situations." As an example, she said public administrators legally don't have to secure witnesses during property inventories.

"They're an independent officeholder and have had tremendous leeway on the operation of the office, unlike some of the other offices in the courthouse," Mr. Conway said of Buchanan County public administrators. "Everyone who has access to leniency or latitude in their office, I don't think it reflects the individual or the office. I think you can have problems occur anywhere."

Presiding County Commissioner Tom Mann said the county doesn't have the authority to set up the checks and balances necessary to oversee the office and plans to approach lobbyists for the next legislative session.

Community,News Archive.


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