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County investigation hints at impropriety at DSS in Durham

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An investigation that Durham County commissioners hoped would restore public trust in county government might have also raised concerns. The report, released last week, points to possible impropriety by Joe Bowser, himself a county commissioner, and paints an unflattering picture of the management of the Durham County Department of Social Services (DSS).

Bowser, who is also a member of the DSS board, requested the investigation in September, in part to clear his name after questions arose about his role in the departure of former DSS Director Gerri Robinson and the subsequent appointment of DSS Interim Director Gail Perry.

Other commissioners agreed that a special investigation could settle questions over Robinson's job performance and the possible influence of politicking on her firing and Perry's hiring.

The investigation was conducted in two parts: one by Durham County Internal Audit Director Richard Edwards and the other by New Bern attorney Jimmie Hicks Jr., whose work cost the county about $12,300.

According to their findings:

  • Perry might have violated a state conflict-of-interest law when she accepted an offer from the DSS board to become the department's interim director. Perry was a member of the DSS board when she was appointed. Although Perry didn't vote for herself, or at all, she should have resigned from the board before the proceedings to avoid potential conflicts of interest, according to Hicks' report. The breach—punishable as a misdemeanor—appeared to be unintentional, Hicks said. It's also unlikely to leave the DSS board vulnerable to any legal ramifications, according to Assistant County Attorney Kathy Everett-Perry (no relation).

  • The DSS board awarded Perry, the new interim DSS director, holiday leave with her salary, even though as a temporary employee, she's not eligible for holiday pay. Durham County erroneously paid Perry for three holidays in 2011 and now has recouped that money.

  • There is some truth to a rumor that Perry used Chick-fil-A fast food coupons to reward employees, a story that has circulated in various iterations and was included in a report last summer from the conservative, Raleigh-based Civitas Institute.

    The auditor did find that when Perry was a supervisor at DSS 10 years ago, she used gift cards, small gifts and coupons to Chick-fil-A to reward employees for excellent performance. But the auditor says the coupons were free and were not purchased with county money. However, gift cards for employees constitute compensation; taxes should have been withheld from the compensation but were not. "The former County Attorney said he didn't know how or if the issue was resolved," Edwards wrote.

  • The auditor also reviewed complaints that Robinson gave promotions on factors other than merit and that a specific employee, Catherine Simmons, had received an unwarranted boost in pay. The auditor did find that shortly after Simmons retired from DSS, Robinson rehired her through a contract. She was paid $56 an hour for duties she had completed at about $33 an hour when she was a full-time employee, according to Edwards' analysis.

  • During Robinson's 22-month tenure, the department had the equivalent of about 430 full-time employees. Under her leadership, 87 employees left; 54 of them resigned. However, compared with the staff turnover rates under the two DSS directors preceding Robinson, these numbers were not unusually high, according to Edwards.

    Bowser challenges this analysis, saying it makes Robinson appear to be as good a manager as the two previous DSS directors, which he says is untrue.

  • The DSS board changed a performance evaluation of Robinson last year, but the auditor could not reveal the details of the change because of personnel laws. The DSS board's former chair, Gladys Dunston, refused to cooperate with the investigation, the audit says, so she couldn't answer questions about claims that she knew Robinson personally before she and the board hired Robinson as DSS director in 2010, or why the board amended her performance evaluation.

Edwards also researched whether any county commissioner may have used his or her influence to help someone get a job.

"It is common practice to pass along résumés and tips regarding job positions and potential employees," Edwards wrote. "Because it is common, we looked at factors that would make the practice inappropriate. Based upon discussions with the involved department heads we determined that the practice was inappropriate when the department head felt pressured to consider or hire the person."

In his report and a subsequent interview with the Indy, Edwards said that in the past two years, Bowser asked the supervisors of at least two Durham County departments to consider a specific person for a job. One of the two supervisors—Ellen Holliman, director of The Durham Center, which provides mental health services for the county—told Edwards she felt uncomfortable with Bowser's request.

Edwards also said that Bowser mentioned the name of a prospective job applicant to Durham County Health Department Director Gayle Harris. Harris told the Indy she never felt pressured to hire the person. In fact, she said the person never called about applying.

Edwards also wanted to ask the same question of Robinson, but she wasn't available. Robinson is currently pursuing a charge through the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that Durham County fired her illegally. In an interview last fall with the Indy, Bowser said he did give Robinson the name of a consultant he thought could help DSS. Bowser said he didn't know whether Robinson pursued his referral.

Bowser didn't return messages from the Indy seeking comment on the audit. But he spoke at Monday's meeting of county commissioners to tell his side of the story. Bowser said he did give Holliman the name of a "well-qualified, unemployed" Durham County resident for a new position the county had opened.

"At no time did I do any coercing or thought that I was putting any pressure on the director, as she has stated, to hire this woman," Bowser said. He added: "Our citizens should have the right to contact us for help. I will continue to try to help them, even in situations like this."

Both Edwards and County Attorney Lowell Siler said they don't believe Bowser violated the commissioners' ethics policy. But Michael Page, board chairman, said Bowser's actions were inappropriate.

"If somebody asks me what can I do to help them get this job ... I will serve as a reference," Page said. "But I do not call a department head to say 'so-and-so is submitting an application'."

Page says the commissioners sought the answers and it's the public that should decide what comes next.

"It's not my place to figure out what do you do about it, and who did it," Page said last week, before Edwards confirmed that Bowser was the unnamed commissioner. "You've got citizens in Durham to demand an answer about it."

The DSS issue has divided the commissioners for nearly six months. "It's been really stressful for the community, and for us," Commissioner Brenda Howerton said Monday.

And the investigation is continuing. Edwards, the auditor, has been asked to look at several contracts awarded by the DSS during Robinson's tenure. He expects the report to be complete in February, he said.

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