Anyone who thought the discussion over the Jackson County Economic Development Commission’s missing audits was over when the board closed the issue last December got a surprise on Monday night.
Chairman Brian McMahan announced that he had gotten a letter from the North Carolina Department of the Treasurer that cleared the county of the responsibility to produce the missing audits for the EDC for the years between 2002 and 2005.
The county was previously under the assumption the audits were necessary under state law, but an accountant hired to perform the back audits concluded it was an impossible task due to spotty records from the era. The EDC operated as an independent agency without county oversight during those years.
The county sought advice from the Local Government Commission in hopes of clearing the air once and for all.
“We went through a process where we asked the LGC what is the next step?” McMahan said. “How do we complete this obligation?”
That in turn prompted the state treasurer’s department to weigh in. The answer, apparently, was the county needed to get letters from each town that participated in the EDC and from past treasurers then communicate with the district attorney’s office.
“It is my understanding, if I interpret this correctly, that Jackson County is not being required at this time to comply with the audits,” McMahan said.
Controversy over the EDC erupted in 2005 amid allegations of financial mismanagement by its leaders. While the EDC was a separate entity, it relied on funding from the county. Concerned by the lack of oversight of public funds at the disposal of an all-volunteer body, the county decided to withdraw from the EDC and seized the organization’s records. But part of the records either weren’t there to begin with or went missing in the process.
The county tried to enlist the services of two separate auditing firms to help piece together what happened to the EDC’s finances to no avail.
But the commissioners, all but one of whom inherited the EDC fiasco, have received so much criticism over the issue that they apparently felt the need to go further.
Perhaps their most vocal critic has been Sylva resident Marie Leatherwood. Leatherwood has attended nearly every board meeting since May 2007 demanding at each one that someone be held accountable for what she claimed was the inexplicable disappearance of taxpayer money and the records that proved it. Getting to the bottom of the issue has become a crusade for Leatherwood.
McMahan became so exasperated with Leatherwood’s constant criticism that he invited her to present her evidence to the board. Leatherwood declined, saying the material was too sensitive.
At Monday’s meeting, Leatherwood reacted to the new information so strongly that the commissioners were forced to call a recess to escape her harangue.
“I’m not going to accept any ‘We’ve done it all,’” Leatherwood said. “That’s making a liar out of me.”
McMahan resorted to using his gavel to try to maintain order during the outburst. After the recess, Leatherwood left the building escorted by a sheriff’s deputy.
Commissioner Joe Cowan, who was on the board when the EDC controversy first emerged, was dismayed by the scene. Having remained quiet on the issue for months, he took time to reiterate that the county has never been responsible for producing an audit of the entity’s finances.
“We separated ourselves from the EDC. There was no legal responsibility to do anything with that audit in the first place,” Cowan said.