During the last few months State Auditor Beth Wood has found herself involved in several incidents that have raised questions about her judgment and professionalism. Allegations include: delaying the release of a state audit dealing with former first lady Mary Easley’s salary at N.C. State University, pressuring an employee in the State Auditor’s office to leave because of his political affiliation and wasting state tax dollars on questionable training. In November, an audit by the State Board of Elections highlighted how the Beth Wood Campaign ran afoul of state election law.
An investigation by Civitas Institute staff revealed State Auditor Beth Wood had not been reimbursing the state for commuting costs. As a member of the Council of State, Wood is entitled to have a state car permanently assigned for her use. However, North Carolina Statutes (N.C. G.S. § 143 – 341 (8) i 7a) state if anyone uses a state car to commute to and from their office, individuals must reimburse the state for all commuting costs.
Three days after making a formal request for documents regarding the use of state cars, Wood submitted a personal check for $1,584 to the Department of Administration (DOA), to cover costs that should have been regularly deducted from her wages.
In response to our request for documents, Wood’s office forwarded mileage logs, a photo copy of a personal check written to DOA for $1,584, dated Oct. 1, 2009 and signed by Beth Wood. Wood’s office also included a signed statement from Dewey Stephens, chief financial officer of the DOA. The statement read: “As of October 8th 2009, State Auditor Beth Wood has paid all commuting costs owed to the State of North Carolina.”
The wording of Stephens’ statement is curious. The date on the check and the lump sum payment suggest, that prior to October, Wood was not reimbursing the state for commuting costs. According to Motor Fleet Management regulations, each month, Wood should have had $198 deducted from her wages. That Wood’s check appeared literally within days of the formal request also suggests the auditor’s office may have been tipped off in advance.
The Office of the State Auditor calls the incident an oversight. When asked who is responsible for enforcing the regulations regarding the use of state cars, Jill Lucas, communications director with the North Carolina Department of Administration commented, “It is Motor Fleet’s responsibility to notify agencies when payment is due for commuting fees, which is what happened in this instance. As you know the Auditor acknowledged the oversight and submitted payment.”
Not everyone shares Lucas’ interpretation. Ron Allison, assistant director of Motor Fleet Management said, "Individual state agencies are responsible for ensuring employees follow rules set forth in the Motor Fleet Regulations Manual." Motor Fleet Management is the agency responsible for administering and overseeing the state’s motor vehicle fleet.
Other evidence argues against acknowledging the incident as a routine oversight. The form applicants complete to apply for permanent vehicle assignment also specifically authorizes “payroll deductions of all applicable fees.” Wood was required to read and sign the document.
In a correspondence dated August 19, 2009, Wood criticized an official at the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services for using a state car to travel regularly between his home and his place of employment in Raleigh (See article). According to Wood, the employee failed to reimburse the state for commuting costs, which resulted in the individual receiving a financial benefit in excess of $36,000.
Wood’s correspondence is instructive. First, as the letter is signed by Wood and deals extensively with proper and improper use of state vehicles, it is difficult to believe, the State Auditor would be unaware of the applicable statutes.
Second, among the recommendations included in Wood’s correspondence was: “management should initiate a process for annual review of duty stations, vehicle assignments and associated mileage logs. The process should include an approval process and proper recordkeeping.”
Unfortunately, mileage logs that we received from the State Auditor’s office didn’t seem to meet that standard. While it is true Wood submitted the requested mileage logs, visual inspection reveals markings and handwriting consistent with someone who completed all the forms at one sitting. In short, there is no evidence to suggest that mileage logs in the State Auditor’s office were completed or reviewed in a timely manner.
An interesting aside to this story is that Wood placed her personalized license tag, which only has the number “6” on the tag, on the state car instead of using it on her personal vehicle. The top elected officials in N. C. are allowed to acquire tags that have specific numbers that denote the office they hold. With that tag on the car there is nothing that readily identifies it to the public as a state vehicle.