Pine Bluff exits audit committee with promise to do better

Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington addresses the audit findings to the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee. (Pine Bluff Commercial/Eplunus Colvin)
Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington addresses the audit findings to the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee. (Pine Bluff Commercial/Eplunus Colvin)

LITTLE ROCK — It was a sigh of relief for Pine Bluff city officials who were dismissed with a gentle warning after facing the state Legislative Joint Auditing Committee held in Little Rock to explain audit findings identified by the committee.

The problem areas centered on Parks and Recreation disbursements and debt payments of more than $600,000 and the misappropriation of $667,384 to a vendor from the Pine Bluff Urban Renewal Agency that ultimately led to criminal charges after an investigation by the Arkansas State Police.

Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington and Pine Bluff Urban Renewal Agency Executive Director Chandra Griffin represented the city and were accompanied by several supporters from Go Forward Pine Bluff and Urban Renewal board members. Go Forward is a nonprofit and works through Urban Renewal, a city agency.

Presiding over the legislative council was the chairman of the committee Sen. David Wallace.

Presented to the committee were the review and disbursements and debt payments for Parks and Recreation revealing the following:

— Proper authorization for two disbursements totaling $56,095 was not obtained and the city ordinance procedure was not followed.

— A short-term lease agreement totaling $87,520 was entered into without proper approval.

— A lease agreement for six golf carts and GPS equipment totaling $506,863 was entered into without proper approval.

— The city entered into a lease agreement for more than 60 months, exceeding legal restrictions per state constitution. Washington explained that more training on procurement procedures was in place and that all department heads and those responsible for procurement procedures were following the rules adequately.

“All city ordinances and procedures will be followed as we move forward,” said Washington. “Proper authorization will be obtained from the mayor and from the city council and the governing body prior to getting disbursements of funds.”

The second audit finding, related to the office of the Mayor, was that the governing body did not review the prior audit report and accompanying comments at the first regularly scheduled meeting following receipt of the report as required by state code.

Washington said in the past officials always addressed the audit findings, but a meeting that was planned to address the audit report did not happen after the mayor's assistant, Louise Sullivan, who was responsible for putting the audit together, passed away and threw everything off course.

“We were in the middle of budgeting and just lost track of it,” said Washington. “We corrected that this year and presented it in June of 2023 to correct the 2022 error, and then when we received our findings this year we presented them in the first meeting after receiving them. We’ll make sure that we are consistent as we move forward.”

The committee was also presented with the Urban Renewal finding involving questionable transactions regarding a vendor being used for asbestos and abatement services of $667,384 from May 2019 through August 2021 but did not address the findings with the consideration that it was a legal matter.

It was explained that there was an investigation by Arkansas State Police into the former director, Maurice Taggart, who held the position from August 2018 until September 30, 2021, and the vendors involved -- Taggart and a man living in Texas -- were each charged with 46 counts of forgery and 38 counts of theft of property on June 1, 2023.

According to the report that was presented, with Taggart’s recent passing, the other individual charged is scheduled for a jury trial on March 11, 2024.

“I think it’s important that your procedures and laws are followed and city council is given their information for oversight purposes,” said Sen. John Payton to Washington. “So you are assuring us and feel comfortable that whatever happened in the past is going to come to light but coming forward you recognize the problem through the audit findings and are taking the steps to correct those?”

“Most definitely,” answered Washington.

A motion was made to move the review.

The hallway was filled with hugs and smiles and Washington could be heard while in an embrace that she was glad that it was over and it was time to get back to work for the city of Pine Bluff.

An emotional Griffin stood in the corner with tears in her eyes and spoke the same sentiments of being glad that this part was over with.

“I didn’t know how detailed it was going to be and wasn’t looking forward to possibly having to speak about Mr. Taggart,” she said as she became flushed with emotions wiping a tear from her eye.

Pine Bluff's Jack Foster, an outspoken opponent of Go Forward, was also in the audience and said he still believes that there is a conspiracy between city officials and Go Forward Pine Bluff to misuse taxpayer’s money.

“I think there’s a RICO violation on it,” said Foster. “I will be pursuing that at some point.”

RICO — Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act — is a federal law dealing with corruption and organized crime.

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