The Johnston County Visitors Bureau (JCVB) and County of Johnston have made a number of changes after problems were uncovered during an audit of the visitors bureau.
The audit was requested by Representative Leo Daughtry last October following a WTSB News investigative series into questionable spending practices at the JCVB.
The WTSB News – Dunn Daily Record investigation uncovered $15,647 in taxpayer money used to buy meals for staff and board members, $11,487 spent during 117 trips to Wal-Mart, along with public funds used to pay for a bar tab, wine, and room service. One meal for the Johnston County Visitors Bureau board equaled the entire yearly food budget for the Dunn Visitors Bureau.
The investigation revealed a visitors bureau board member’s company was paid about $144,000 for services during the 2014-15 fiscal year. That was the largest amount the county agency spent with any single company that year. That board member resigned during our inquiry.
JCVB President and CEO Donna Bailey Taylor was given a 10 percent pay raise in 2015 just seven weeks after hiring JCVB Board Chairman Ernie Brame’s daughter, Ashby Brame to a newly created position. According to minutes of the Feb. 2015 meeting, no discussion was held about the hiring of the chairman’s daughter. The vote to increase Taylor’s salary from $78,151 to $86,000 was ostensibly made in closed session, but no record or reason for the closed session exists in the minutes from the meeting. Mr. Brame did not recuse himself from the vote.
The audit uncovered numerous problems including a lack of a conflict of interest policy, code of ethics, an unallowable purchase policy, or credit card use guidelines. After the state inquiry those policies were put into place.
Other policies still being worked on include updating personnel policies and procedures, rules for the board, travel and reimbursement, bylaws and operating procedures, and public records retention.
The visitors bureau was also encouraged by the state to take UNC School of Government classes including “An Introduction to the North Carolina Open Meeting Law.”
The report suggested the County require prior approval of credit card transactions and have all supporting documents. All financial documents from the visitors bureau should be kept by the County Finance Officer who is also an ex officio member of the JCVB board.
The report indicated County Manager Rick Hester was “reluctant” to adopt a meal policy. “(He) informed us that he was reluctant to do this due to the wide variety of services and various boards and elected officials the County had. He did not feel the County had a problem with the way they were currently handling this issue.”
Brad Young, a spokesperson for the NC Treasurer’s Office said Johnston County officials have taken corrective actions, including improvements to internal controls. “Those controls now include requirements that the public purpose of a transaction be documented.”
Among the purchases that must now be documents are food items. The Visitor’s Bureau had spent $2,500 on a cake for the Ava Gardner Museum. The only proof of purchase to verify the cost was a photo of the cake. Following the WTSB News investigation, a receipt for the cake was found and submitted to state investigators. The JCVB also provides holiday gifts and mementos to board members.
Last year, JCVB President and CEO Donna Bailey Taylor defended the purchases the organization makes. “That’s legal, I’m not breaking any laws. This is how we do business.”