The FBI’s investigation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Cherokee Agency’s deputy superintendent Ruth Marie Sequoyah McCoy goes far deeper than the charges of marriage fraud that she and 11 others are currently facing, according to recently filed court documents.
Four people accused of entering into fraudulent marriages with non-U.S. citizens will plead guilty to the charge of marriage fraud, a crime that carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Twelve people will face federal charges following an FBI investigation into an alleged marriage fraud ring based in Cherokee.
A Haywood County woman has pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges for filing bogus unemployment claims on behalf of unsuspecting victims, a scam that bilked the government for more than $29,000 in fake unemployment benefits over a two-year period.
The Department of Transportation isn’t sure how long it will take to investigate anonymous allegations of fraud among road maintenance contractors and DOT employees in Haywood County, according to a spokesperson for the agency.
A second anonymous letter was distributed last week alleging favoritism by DOT’s maintenance supervisors in awarding contracts for roadwork in Haywood and Jackson counties, prompting DOT officials in Raleigh to ratchet up the caliber of their internal investigation.
Routine maintenance such as cutting brush from roadsides, hauling gravel, cleaning-out ditches and even building secondary roads is not done in house by DOT maintenance crews, but instead is done by private contractors.
The letter alleges that one private contractor who pulls down the lion’s share of the work overbills the DOT, while the DOT maintenance division looks the other way. The letter details several examples of jobs where DOT maintenance supervisors were complicit in overpaying the contractor.
After receiving the first anonymous letter, Joel Setzer, the head of the 10-county division of the DOT that includes Haywood and Jackson, initially assigned someone in his own office to conduct the internal investigation. However, DOT officials in Raleigh have turned it over to the office of inspector general, an autonomous arm of the DOT that handles internal investigations.
“We take every report of any kind that we get very seriously, whether they come from employees internally or people outside DOT,” said Greer Beaty, director of communications for DOT in Raleigh.
The DOT’s office of inspector general is a recent creation under the administration of Gov. Bev Perdue, who has pushed for openness and accountability of state government. It has eight fulltime investigators — seemingly a large staff to do nothing but look into allegations of wrong-doing within a single state agency, but DOT is a massive operation.
DOT has between 12,000 and 14,000 employees, a budget of $4 billion and hundreds of contracts it oversees.
Many allegations don’t pan out. But in the process, the office of inspector general will make recommendations on new ways of doing business, Beaty said.
“There are going to be instances where we can do things better,” Beaty said. “The investigation will point out where we might strengthen a policy or procedure.”
That might indeed be the case with this investigation, where the way in which DOT maintenance divisions award work to contractors will undoubtedly be examined.
“It will be a good time for us to look and say ‘This policy is appropriate,’ or ‘Gosh, we could make this policy stronger by doing this,’” Beaty said.
Investigators are handicapped when looking into anonymous claims, Beaty said.
“There is no way to ask questions or get supporting documentation. We have to start from ground zero and turn over every rock,” Beaty said.
While the letter names DOT maintenance employees and specific contractors, The Smoky Mountain News will not print those names unless the allegations are substantiated.
An anonymous letter alleging corruption — including bribery, embezzlement, overbilling and theft of state materials — among contractors hired to do roadside maintenance for the N.C. Department of Transportation in Haywood County has been widely circulated in recent weeks.
County commissioners, law enforcement, state politicians, media outlets and the DOT itself received copies. While the letter isn’t signed, the allegations are detailed and specific — specific enough that it has prompted the DOT to conduct an internal investigation.
“They are some serious accusations that have been made,” said Joel Sezter, head of the DOT for a 10-county area that includes Haywood.
When Setzer got a copy of the letter in late December, he assigned a staff person from his own office to start an internal investigation. But Setzer’s boss has since taken charge of the inquiry, and it is now being orchestrated out of the Raleigh office.
Terry Gibson, the State Highway Administrator in Raleigh, has pledged to get to the bottom of the accusations.
“The allegations do concern us very much. We will not stop until we are sure things are running like they ought to out there,” Gibson said. “We don’t want to hurt anyone that is innocent, but if someone is doing something that is not right we want to deal with it.”
Gibson said he assigned his Chief Engineer John Nance, essentially the second in command over the DOT, to spearhead the investigation. But he has also brought in the Inspector General for the highway department, which acts as an autonomous review body.
“We asked them to make sure it is an independent look,” Gibson said.
Setzer would not speculate on who wrote the letter. But whoever it was has a working knowledge of DOT maintenance operations. The letter mentions the names of several DOT employees and contractors, as well as specific contracts and purchases.
Gibson said chasing down claims in anonymous letters can sometimes be difficult since there is no original source to interview.
But, “This one is so specific that it should help us try to determine the validity,” Gibson said.
How aggressive DOT will be with its internal investigation remains to be seen. However, ignoring the letter — particularly since it was so widely disseminated — would have been difficult.
The letter was sent to all five Haywood County commissioners, who in turn passed it to District Attorney Mike Bonfoey.
“We don’t have the authority to do a criminal investigation as a county board. That’s a law enforcement issue. If they deem it necessary for a law enforcement investigation, that is their decision,” County Manager Marty Stamey said.
Bonfoey, in turn, passed the letter on to Sherriff Bobby Suttles.
“I sent it along to the sheriff for him to act appropriately,” Bonfoey said.
Bonfoey declined to comment on why he sent it to the sheriff rather than the SBI, which would be better equipped to handle an investigation into possible public corruption.
Sheriff Suttles said an investigation of a state agency like the DOT would have to be done at the state level, presumably the SBI, and not his office.
“I don’t see an investigation from the sheriff’s office on it at this time,” Suttles said.
Beside, since the letter was anonymous, there is no clear starting place, Suttles said.
“It doesn’t give you too much to go on,” Suttles said.
Setzer said he won’t hesitate to call for a criminal investigation by the SBI if his agency finds the allegations have any merit.
“If any laws were broken then I will be making a reference to the SBI, but I don’t if they have been yet or not,” Setzer said. “Right now it is hard to know what is accurate and what is inaccurate in that letter, and I don’t want to speculate.”