A county commissioner got financial aid from the Swain County Department of Services last year while his niece was serving as the DSS director, prompting the development of a new conflict of interest policy.
The new policy prohibits the DSS director from approving benefits for family members. At least three family members of DSS Director Tammy Cagle got financial payments from the agency — including her uncle, County Commissioner Steve Moon.
Cagle’s role in approving the benefits was questioned by the DSS board last October but they found no wrongdoing, according to board members.
“The board met and we reviewed each instance, and we found no illegalities concerning either state or federal policies. We reviewed it very carefully, but everything was above board,” said Bob Thomas, a former DSS board member. “It was maybe a question of judgment, but there was nothing illegal about anything that was done.”
Moon received financial assistance from DSS after his house burned down last year. Moon said he does not know whether Cagle personally signed off on the aid. His wife made the application, he said. Moon owns a tire store and his wife has a job with the school system.
Cagle was recently suspended with pay due to an unrelated investigation of the agency by the State Bureau of Investigation. DSS workers have been accused of a cover-up following the death of a Cherokee baby in an attempt hide potential negligence on their part.
Moon was the lone county commissioner who believed Cagle should remain in her post during the SBI investigation. County commissioners voted 4 to 1 to call on the DSS board to put Cagle on administrative leave after she was named in a search warrant. Moon did not recuse himself from the vote even though Cagle is his niece.
The names of Cagle’s other family members who received benefits, and the amount they received is not public record.
Cagle’s home phone number is not listed. Attempts to contact her through DSS’ attorney were unsuccessful.
Change in policy
Minutes of a DSS board meeting last October show the board discussed the issue in closed session, citing confidential personnel matters as the reason for closing the meeting.
Upon coming out of closed session, however, the board announced that Cagle had done nothing wrong. The board passed a resolution affirming support for Cagle.
“The Swain County DSS board fully supports the director in performing the duties as required by the county, state and federal guidelines,” the resolution stated.
Cagle then “expressed her appreciation of the board’s support,” according to the minutes of the meeting.
The following month, however, the board passed a conflict of interest policy that prohibits the director from approving assistance for family members or signing their benefit checks.
“At no time will the Director be involved with the decision making process of determining eligibility for any program,” the new policy states.
Family members of the director must apply through the same outlets as the public would — namely with the supervisor over the specific aid program they are applying for, whether its food stamps or one-time emergency rent assistance. In addition, the program manager, who serves as second in command for the agency, must approve the benefits and sign checks made out to the director’s family members.
The purpose of the policy was to prevent Cagle from being in a situation where she would have to explain or justify herself, according to Jim Gribble, a DSS board member at the time.
“We just wanted to remove any suspicion toward her for approving anything for her family,” Gribble said.
The conflict of interest policy was approved by the board in November and devised with input from a state DSS liaison.
Thomas said the same protocol should extend to any DSS worker.
“Anything involving any employee’s family needed to be served by someone other than a family member,” Thomas said.
Thomas and Gribble said the issue was first raised by the county manager or county commissioners, who expressed concerns about benefits being paid out to Cagle’s family members.
“There were a couple questions raised by commissioners as to whether assistance given was legal or not,” Thomas said.
Gribble said the questions were raised by the county manager.
While the DSS board cleared Cagle, it does not appear the DSS board independently verified whether the particular family members qualified for the benefits.
When asked if they were eligible, Gribble said “I assume so,” but added that, “The board doesn’t do eligibility.”
Since the specific benefits are not public record, it is not certain what aid program Moon tapped after his house burned down.
Moon said it was emergency assistance. However, he would not be eligible for that program according to the guidelines. Emergency assistance provides money “for families in short-term financial crisis due to unusual circumstances,” but the household must have a child under the age of 18 and be living below the poverty level, according to the eligibility guidelines.