Public should see report on Franklin County losses

September 14, 2012 

Franklin County knows it has a problem.

More than $2.8 million went missing over a span of 20 years, and officials have no doubt about who they believe took the money.

Dennis Huston, a former employee of the county's public works department, is scheduled to go to trial in January on charges stemming from the missing money.

County officials say he used his position there to make fraudulent payments to a company no longer in business and pocketed the money himself to support cocaine and gambling habits.

Warning flags had been raised about Huston to county officials before. The FBI investigated him and it was brought to light that he had been convicted of embezzlement at a prior job just before Franklin County hired him.

But it wasn't until an audit of the department's vendor list turned up continuing payments to a business no longer in operation that Huston was fired early this year and subsequently charged with the thefts.

In February, Franklin County asked its insurer, the Washington Counties Risk Pool, for an independent investigation.

The final report was provided to the county in April, but it has yet to be made public.

Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant argues that the report should remain confidential because it is potential evidence in various legal actions.

Commissioners have the authority to release the report, which was paid for by public funds. One commissioner has requested the results be made public, but two others say they will not go against legal advice. It would take a majority vote to release the document to the public.

Here's what we don't understand: Franklin County made a series of missteps regarding the embezzlements. First, by hiring someone to work in finance who had already been convicted of a similar crime. Second, by not having internal controls that would have prevented someone from diverting county money to himself. And, third, by not doing more when questions were raised about Huston's job performance in 2009.

To be fair, the FBI didn't find evidence of wrongdoing but it's clear now federal investigation didn't dig deep enough. By that time, officials were certainly aware of Huston's past, and his actions should have been closely monitored.

And, now the commissioners are refusing to release the results of the taxpayer funded independent investigation. Presumably, an outside review could help county taxpayers determine how the county lost at least $2.8 million of their money.

So where is the transparency?

We expect the results of the investigation to be requested by Huston's attorney as part of the discovery process for his trial. That's standard procedure for the defense to see what evidence the prosecutor may or may not have against his or her client.

So why are the results being kept from the public? We don't know if there's no smoking gun in the report that would make this affair any more embarrassing. But even if there is, it will come out during upcoming court cases. It's a public document and the public has a right to know what the independent investigation found.

Keeping the report in confidence lowers our confidence in the way county officials dealt with Huston.

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