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Alleged misuse of city credit cards leads to two investigations

Former city of Culver employee sues her former bosses, claiming her departure was in retaliation for reporting financial irregularities
News Editor
   June 25, 2003 — Allegations from a former city of Culver employee who was laid off last month has spawned two separate investigations into the use of city credit cards, plus a lawsuit.
    Eugenia Alire, Culver’s former city clerk of almost three years, was laid off May 27 in what city council members say was a budget-cutting move.
    On Friday, her attorney, Paul Speck of Bend, sent a tort notice to the city, informing the council his client will be suing for wrongful discharge, among other allegations.
    Alire, of Madras, accused a co-worker of misusing a city credit card in April, and claims the council’s decision to cut her loose was part of an effort to sweep her allegations under the rug.
    Council members interviewed last week said the basis of her lawsuit simply isn’t true, and the investigation into the misuse of credit cards has remained active since it was reported.
    “That is absolutely not the case,” Culver Mayor Dan Harnden said of the former employee’s claim. “I don’t know who is going to believe me or not, but we have to run this city like a business.”
    Culver is facing a $28,000 shortfall as it enters the next budget year.
    Alire originally made her complaint to city councilor Anzie Adams in April, and the case promptly was handed to Culver Chief of Police Lee Farrester, city officials interviewed last week said.
    Farrester then handed the investigation over to a former reserve officer, Jim Smith, who now assists the Culver Police Department with detective work on a contractual basis.
    His investigation has been thorough, Farrester said, and could be completed within days.
   Alire’s complaint accuses city recorder Jeralyn Jones of using the city’s credit card for personal use, but not paying it back.
    Farrester, who is friends with Jones and her husband through law enforcement — Jack Jones is the county’s sheriff — said he removed himself from the investigation because of a conflict of interest.
    Regardless, Farrester said, “If somebody did wrong that wrong is going to be dealt with.” However, Farrester said, a first glance of the evidence being investigated suggests no laws have been broken.
    “Certainly from the appearance of things at this point, there’s little reason for concern,” Farrester said. “If there’s been something charged (on a city credit card), it’s been paid back.”
    Reached for comment, Jeralyn Jones said the city’s attorney has instructed her not to speak of the allegations.
    That attorney, Paul Sumner, said Alire’s grievances with her former employers “makes better press than the facts.”
    “And the fact is,” Sumner said, “she made allegations that are being investigated, and unrelated to that, the city had to lay off somebody because they didn’t have enough money to retain all the employees.”
    Alire followed her allegations to the city with a complaint to the state Government Standards and Practices Commission, the watchdog agency akin to an ethics commission. The agency investigates government officials accused of using their position for personal financial gain.
    The agency has begun a preliminary 90-day review of the case — something it must do indiscriminately when any complaint is filed.
    Don Crabtree, an investigator with the commission, speaking hypothetically, but not specifically of the Culver investigation, said reimbursing expenses billed to a government credit card does not necessarily clear officials of wrongdoing.
    “I guess the legal theory behind that is if it wasn’t for their public position, they wouldn’t have a credit card from the agency,” he said.
    “They’ve taken advantage of something that is not available to the public.”
    Records obtained by The Pioneer show that in the past year, Jones’ city-issued credit card has been used to purchase items from Old Navy, Harlequin Books, a saddle shop, a pharmacy, a Buick parts company and items from several catalogs.
    Councilor Anzie Adams said the city council is aware that several city employees have used the card to make purchases, and the investigation is to determine whether they were paid back.
    “When we looked at the purchases, it did not look good,” Adams said. However, she added, the initial investigation indicates all purchases were paid back.
    Adams said every city employee, excluding Farrester, has made personal purchases on the credit card. The council has since made a policy prohibiting that kind of use, Adams said. “They shouldn’t have been using city credit cards, period,” Adams said.