“We’ve never had anything like this situation before, so it’s kind of new territory,” said Luke Bateman, Board of Elections chairman.
Between June 2013 and January 2014, former elections director Kim Bishop signed check requests totaling $51,845.81, supposedly to pay for contract services from four different women, according to a search warrant. The women, however, told investigators they had never received the checks, and the board of elections members whose names appeared on the check request signature lines said they never signed the forms.
When the investigation began, Bishop was placed on paid investigative leave at her full salary of $42,000, and an interim director was named. But the Macon County Board of Elections can’t outright fire her — that has to come from the state board. Macon County had put off sending in a petition requesting her termination in hopes that the State Bureau of Investigation probe would wrap up quickly, strengthening the county board’s argument. But by the time April rolled around, the board decided it couldn’t wait any longer.
“That process has just drug out much longer than we anticipated and were led to believe was the case,” Bateman said, “So we just came to a point as a board that we just felt like this was the best thing.”
So, after a closed session at its regular April 8 meeting, the board approved a petition requesting Bishop’s removal as director. That same evening, Bateman went to the Macon County commissioners meeting to request the funding the board needs to stay afloat through the end of the fiscal year, which includes the May primary election.
“We’ve made all the cuts that we can and trying to be as diligent as we could with what we have left and what we have remaining that’s required by law for us to do,” Bateman said. “We felt pretty good about this number that we were able to get it down to, considering the current circumstances.”
The board approved Bateman’s request for $41,458 from the fund balance, $32,796 of which will go toward primary election expenses. That’s compared to $51,000 in money gone from the suspected embezzlement. Bateman said the board was able to make up a good bit of the difference with revenue from election filing fees, which usually just goes back to the county’s general budget.
“We were able to take the filing fees for this upcoming election as well as some reimbursements for the town elections from last November and use those to offset,” Bateman said.
Commissioners unanimously approved the expenditure, but only after looking for any other way to keep the board afloat.
“We’re entrusted by the tax payer to safeguard their tax dollars, and we failed,” said Commissioner Paul Higdon. “Are there safeguards to prevent it in the future?”
Finance director Lori Hall answered that she has made changes in finance, and County Manager Derek Roland added that he’s waiting on reports from the state auditor to come back. Once he receives them, he will “see what we can do to ensure that this never happens again.”
Depending on the outcome of the investigation, restitution for the embezzled money could be required, but, County Attorney Chester Jones warned commissioners, “I wouldn’t count it till you had it in your hand.”
“That’s hard to stomach, but that’s just the way it is,” said Commissioner Ronnie Beale.
That’s more in the long view, though. For now, Bateman said, he’s happy to be on the way toward restored stability in the Macon County Board of Elections.
“We’ve put in a lot of time trying to do the right thing given the hand we were dealt and move forward,” Bateman said.