Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens walked to the podium in the Municipal Complex courtroom Tuesday evening. He unfolded a sheet of paper with prepared remarks and, with an earnest tone worthy of a Sunday devotional reading, began to address his fellow council members.
What followed was a warning from a Bible verse in Luke, a rebuke of some of Mayor Keith Gaskin’s recent public statements and, ultimately, a 4-2 vote that relegated hopes for a forensic audit of city finances to the dustbin of what might have been.
“I cannot vote to pay for searching our records going back years and years that can cost us to find something that might not even exist,” Mickens said. “… In Luke 9:62 it says, ‘Anyone who putteth hand to the plow and looketh back is not worthy of the kingdom of God.’ … We need to quit looking behind us. We have an opportunity here to move forward.”
Mickens took direct aim at comments Gaskin made for a Sunday article in The Dispatch, where the mayor said he believed there was a public outcry for a forensic audit and suggested taking private donations to defray the costs to the city.
“I read in the paper that you believe this is something the public wants,” Mickens told the mayor. “With due respect, in my ward, my constituents are not telling me this. My constituents are telling me … they need more paving on our streets. We need to improve drainage in East Columbus (because) when it rains, water is backing up in the commodes in people’s houses. … My people don’t want water in their houses.
“The people in Ward 2 are begging for more public safety, less crime,” he added. “They want their kid to be safe in the street and they want an end to the illegal drug using and the gang violence.”
Mickens, who said a forensic audit would be “a distraction,” suggested the city might instead seek private donations for other needs — better equipment for the police department or a new boom truck for public works, for example.
“Let those things that need funding be funded,” he said.
Mickens’ comments came on the heels of presentations from Legier and Company Forensic CPAs and Business Consultants of New Orleans, Louisiana, and GranthamPoole Certified Public Accountants of Jackson, the firms pitching their services for a forensic audit. Gaskin had hoped the council would take two weeks to consider the information and vote on whether to hire one of the firms on Oct. 19.
However, Mickens moved Tuesday to quash the forensic audit and not accept any private donations for one, which drew a quick second from Ward 4 Councilman Pierre Beard.
“It was not on the agenda to vote on this tonight,” Gaskin interjected. “It was on the agenda to let people take this information, study it and read it. …. I’m sorry you’re upset by my comment to the newspaper. What I’m trying to do is not look back, Councilman Mickens. We’re trying to look forward. To do that, you’ve to gain trust and understanding in your community.”
He then tried to lead more discussion on the matter, but Mickens called for a vote on his motion.
“There’s a motion on the floor, and the council can put a motion on the floor at any time,” he told the mayor. “There’s been a motion and a second. It’s up to you to carry it out.”
“Could you explain in your motion why you want to do it right this minute and not wait until the 19th as we had planned for the vote?” Gaskin asked.
Mickens replied, “Ain’t nothing going to change in two weeks.”
Ethel Stewart of Ward 1 and Stephen Jones of Ward 5 joined Mickens and Beard in the vote to kill the audit. Ward 3 Councilman Rusty Greene and Ward 6 Councilwoman Jacqueline DiCicco opposed, though both remained silent during board discussion on the matter.
“I feel like (a forensic audit) is needed,” DiCicco told The Dispatch after the meeting. “I don’t really know (what we do now).”
After the meeting, Gaskin maintained the city’s financial situation is “not good” and stood by his previous statements that the majority of Columbus citizens want to see a forensic audit conducted.
Now, he said, having a forensic audit hinges on the council’s willingness to revisit the issue.
“As mayor, I’m trying to help set good policy for the city,” Gaskin told The Dispatch. “Why not take two weeks and give the citizens two weeks to look at this before the vote? I don’t understand why you would shut down something when you’re trying to gather information.”
In a call to The Dispatch this morning, Gaskin said he trusts that Mickens and the councilmen who voted with him to kill the audit were doing what they believe is in the city’s best interest. But Gaskin said he isn’t giving up on convincing them otherwise.
“I will continue to educate them on why we need a forensic audit,” he said.
The auditing firms
Gaskin had touted a forensic audit as an opportunity to get a clearer picture of city finances and correct inefficiencies, especially after former Chief Financial Officer Milton Rawle pleaded guilty in 2020 of embezzling nearly $290,000 from the city.
Representatives with the Legier and GranthamPoole firms presented the city different gameplans for a forensic audit with vastly different cost estimates for their services.
John Collier and Bill Legier with the Legier firm estimated their services would cost the city from $175,000 to $275,000.
Collier said the firm would look at banking documents going back as far as 2013 — when Rawle was hired — to see if there was any other embezzlement or misappropriation. Legier’s audit would also include a deep look into departmental spending, cost overruns for certain construction projects, a specific look into what exactly caused the city’s $800,000 deficit in Fiscal Year 2018 and what internal controls need to be implemented to mitigate future inefficiencies.
To a question from Stewart regarding the difference between the city’s annual audit and what the forensic audit would accomplish, Collier said the annual audit — an “attestation audit” performed by the Watkins, Ward and Stafford firm — primarily test samples to attest to whether the books are accurate. A forensic audit looks at all documents in target areas to identify fraud, misappropriation and inefficiency.
Stephanie Smith, with GranthamPoole, said even a forensic audit of Legier’s detail might not be necessary.
She, too, wanted to determine if there had been other embezzlement, as well as third party agreements, construction projects and past budget deficits. She estimated it would cost the city $23,000 to $28,000 for GranthamPoole to look into each of those areas, and she didn’t believe there was “any good to be gained” for diving deeply into an area where the initial look didn’t yield problems. If any areas did merit a deeper look, she would seek permission from the council to increase the cost accordingly.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.