FILE - Audit

(The Center Square) – A company owned by the former chairman of the Hertford County Board of Commissioners was paid nearly $20,000 to sanitize voting locations during the pandemic, the state auditor reports.

State Auditor Beth Wood issued an analysis for Hertford County last month that spawned from allegations submitted through the state auditor’s hotline.

Investigators reviewed board minutes, emails, invoices, payments and other documents to reveal how the county’s former director of elections steered work to RA Enterprises, LLC, owned by Commissioner Ronald Gatling, who remains on the county board.

In July 2020, the Hertford County Board of Elections requested the former director of elections to obtain a quote from ServPro, a national cleaning and restoration company, for cleaning and sanitation services amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The next day, RA Enterprises was created and incorporated with the North Carolina Secretary of State, with Gatling listed as president. About two weeks later, on July 28, 2020, the company was added to the county’s financial system as a new vendor at the request of the elections director, according to the report.

“This occurred before any quotes from RA Enterprises, LLC or ServPro were received,” auditors wrote. “The Director told investigators, ‘I needed to go ahead and make sure that we had a vendor in place because where we live in the northeastern part of the state, vendors were slim. So, I needed to go ahead and it was only two (vendors).’ However, ServPro was never set up as a vendor.”

Two days later, on July 30, 2020, RA Enterprises submitted a quote for $1,311 for sanitizing and disinfecting the county board of elections office. ServPro submitted a quote on Aug. 24, 2020 for $6,900 to sanitize 13 polling places and the board of elections office. On Aug. 28, 2020, RA Enterprises submitted another quote for $1,241 to sanitize and disinfect two one-stop early voting locations on Oct. 14, 2020, according to the report.

Investigators noted that bids should have been solicited for the services because the cost exceeded $5,000. Regardless, “the Director of Elections ignored the quote received from ServPro and proceeded to conduct business solely with RA Enterprises, LLC.,” auditors wrote.

On Oct. 27, 2020, RA Enterprises submitted two more quotes, one for $7,011 for 182 hours of sanitizing and disinfecting services for the county’s two one-stop early voting locations, and another for $10,342 for sanitizing and disinfecting 13 polling places before and after the Nov. 3 general election.

RA Enterprises was ultimately paid a total of $19,995.

Auditors noted that the county elections director operates under a Fiscal Procedures Manual, which was violated in three ways: by purchasing services from a county employee, failing to secure competing quotes for the two purchase orders under $5,000, and failing to solicit competitive bids before approving the second two purchase orders over $5,000.

“The Director’s approval of four purchase orders without competition increased the risk of favoritism, corruption, and fraud in the purchasing process,” auditors wrote. “The County may have been able to obtain the cleaning services at a lower cost if the Director had followed the County Fiscal Procedures Manual, which require price quotes from three vendors for services under $5,000 and competitive bidding for services over $5,000.”

“The Director could not explain her reasoning for selecting RA Enterprises, LLC for cleaning services. She stated ‘I don’t have an answer for that. I don’t,’” the report read. “The Director acknowledged that she and the former Chairman were personal friends.”

Auditors recommended disciplinary action for the director of elections, disclosures for companies owned by commissioners, revisions for the Fiscal Procedures Manual, and that commissioners “be required to read, understand, and adhere to the Hertford County Fiscal Procedures Manual.”

The county board of commissioners responded to the findings in a letter to Wood in January that laid out steps the county is taking to prevent similar incidents, including annual training for commissioners and finance director, updates to the procedures manual, disclosure forms for commissioners, and a public resolution that clarified Gatling was the only commissioner aware of the arrangement.

“Despite their lack of awareness of the prior actions referenced in the Report, the HCBOC and the County Manager have accepted a responsibility to strengthen policies and procedures to prevent such a situation from occurring in the future, and steps to do so have already been put in place,” the resolution read. “The HCBOC hereby expresses its displeasure in the circumstances outlined in the Report, and does not condone the actions of Commissioner Gatling in this matter.”