Mayor Keith Gaskin plans to recommend a forensic audit of the city’s finances in an effort to get a “clean slate” for his new administration.
Gaskin told The Dispatch on Wednesday he is in the process of interviewing two private accounting firms with expertise in forensic audits — which specialize in ferreting out financial misconduct. During a press conference Wednesday morning, he credited the effort to a statement State Auditor Shad White made during a visit to Columbus Rotary Club in June that the city could benefit from a forensic audit in the wake of former chief financial officer Milton Rawle’s embezzlement conviction.
“I’m talking to them about what the potential scope of an audit would be. At this time, I can’t tell you if there are particular areas we will be focusing on,” Gaskin told The Dispatch. “I’m interested in doing a deep dive into the finances because I know the community has a lot of questions about where we are. I’m very interested in getting a clean slate for my administration as we move forward and being good stewards of the city’s finances.”
White’s office began investigating Rawle in 2019 after a tip from a whistleblower and found numerous unauthorized transactions falsely labeled under “payroll” or “reimbursement.” He was arrested in August 2020 for embezzling $288,000 in city funds and after pleading guilty and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
During White’s Rotary visit, he said the $288,000 was all his office could prove was stolen, but that could be “only a percentage” of what actually was, especially since the city deficits for Fiscal Years 2017 and 2018 each exceeded $800,000. He said it “isn’t a bad idea” for the city to hire a forensic audit if its leaders thought the cost would justify the results.
A forensic audit could cost in the tens of thousands of dollars, city officials The Dispatch spoke to speculated, and it would be in addition to its regular annual audit conducted by Watkins, Ward and Stafford firm that is turned in to the state.
“There’s a cost to this and obviously that will be a consideration,” Gaskin told The Dispatch.
For Ward 5 Councilman Stephen Jones, cost is the primary consideration for whether he will support it.
“I have no idea until I see what the price tag is,” Jones told The Dispatch on Wednesday. “We know how super expensive that kind of audit can be.”
At this point, Jones said, he feels he has a “clear enough picture” of city finances in the wake of Rawle’s embezzlement case, and he would need assurances from the forensic auditing firm it could find “new information.”
“This needs to be more than just someone saying we need one,” Jones said. “The State Auditor’s Office found what they found and prosecuted what they prosecuted. … They didn’t find anything else.”
Jacqueline DiCicco, councilwoman for Ward 6 who began her first term along with Gaskin July 1, said she would rather know with absolute certainty. She echoed Gaskin’s calls for a “clean slate.”
“I am completely for it,” she said. “People in my ward continue to ask, ‘Will there be a forensic audit?’ … I’m just not certain (whether there is more wrongdoing to find). That’s why I think it is a good idea.”
Gaskin shies away from supporting mask mandate
At Wednesday’s press conference, Gaskin shied away from supporting a potential citywide mask mandate in light of skyrocketing cases of COVID-19 in Mississippi fueled by the Delta variant and the state’s lagging vaccination rate.
The council voted Tuesday to require mask wearing inside all city buildings and has set a special-call meeting for 2 p.m. Aug. 26 to consider a citywide mandate similar to the one it implemented for several months in 2020.
Gaskin said the mandate for city buildings “sets a good example” for encouraging citizens to wear masks in all indoor public spaces, but he is concerned about several facets of imposing a citywide mandate, chiefly enforcement. Further, he said, he doesn’t know of any other city than Jackson that has reimplemented a citywide mandate.
“It’s very difficult to monitor this in a way where we can be holding people, fining people, arresting people,” he said. “… It would be very difficult for our police department to go out and enforce (a mandate) and do it in a fair manner. (Last time), some businesses felt like they were targeted. Others felt like they were able to get away with it because nobody was out patrolling their area. We just don’t have the manforce.”
Another issue the council will discuss in next week’s special-call meeting is restructuring its 2014 bond issue.
The city borrowed $5 million in 2014 to pave streets with plans to repay the debt by July 2029. The balance, as of Sept. 30, will be $3.775 million, interim Chief Operations Officer Mark Alexander Jr. said.
A bond “refunding” could save the city as much as 5 percent over the life of the loan, lowering the interest rate without extending the payoff date.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.