Final bill for Russell firing is $269,116

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Jessie Burchette

Salisbury Post

Nearly 15 months after the firing of County Manager Tim Russell, the final bill has been paid.

The Rowan County Board of Commissioners recently approved a budget amendment to make $24,359 of additional funds available to pay a Charlotte law firm hired to investigate Russell.

The total cost of the payout, legal services and the investigation is $269,116.

Commissioners fired Russell in August 2005 after the full board learned he had hired private investigators to find the writer of anonymous letters critical of county spending.

The writer, who often signed with some version of “Common Sense,” peppered the manager, commissioners and others with letters for nearly a decade. The letters started with the county’s participation in the $7.5 million baseball stadium in Kannapolis. The letters ended in December 2004.

During the investigation that spanned four years, Kiker Investigations personnel conducted surveillance of facilities in Kannapolis, including the post office, a city office, a church and a hardware store.

They also watched the homes and/or followed more than a dozen residents, including a mayor, a former mayor and a Cabarrus County commissioner.

Most of the investigation focused on Kannapolis, but in the spring of 2004, investigators re-directed their efforts to Salisbury. Investigators focused on Arnold Chamberlain, a retired businessman and former county commissioner, who was getting ready to announce his intent to seek a return to office.

Months after Chamberlain was elected, Russell confronted him with a handwriting analysis that claimed Chamberlain was “Common Sense.”

Chamberlain, who is currently chairman of the board, denied writing any of the letters. His handwriting expert backed his contention.

Details of the investigation subsequently spilled out when commissioners demanded all records of investigators be released to the public.

Russell and three commissioners who said they knew of the investigation — Steve Blount, Leda Belk and Frank Tadlock — all contended they never knew investigators were following people or conducting surveillance.

Commissioners fired Russell, who had worked for the county for more than 20 years, in August 2005.

Several weeks later, the board reached a settlement, agreeing to pay Russell, $179,500.

As part of the agreement, the board hired Parker & Poe of Charlotte to do an investigation of Russell’s actions as county manger.

The six-month investigation of Russell found he committed no crimes and engaged in no criminal conduct while working for the county.

But the investigation found that Russell repeatedly violated county policies and procedures in carrying out the day-to-day business of the county.

The report found that Russell repeatedly violated the county’s travel and reimbursement policies and that he often violated policies by failing to bid contracts. Some contractors and companies got repeated business, and materials were bought without purchase orders.

The county paid Parker Poe a total of $56,194, with the last payment going out in December.

The investigation did spur changes in the way the county does business.

County Manager Bill Cowan and Finance Director Leslie Heidrick have taken steps to make sure all policies are followed.

Among those policies is the requirement for a purchase order for anything in excess of $300. That policy is now strictly enforced.

And in other cases, the county didn’t always comply with state laws.

For example, the state requires that all contracts must have a pre-audit certification before they are signed.

Finance Director Leslie Heidrick said the certification is intended to make sure no one obligates the county to spending that’s not approved.

Investigators found Russell didn’t always comply with that requirement. For example, his contract didn’t have the certificate. And a contract guaranteeing hundreds of thousands of dollars in lease payment for an airport hangar did not have pre-audit certification.

In addition, the county paid $22,560 in Social Security, health insurance and related benefits for Russell.

And Russell continues to receive free health insurance from the county. He is one of about 25 county retirees who qualify under a plan adopted in 2002. The county provides the insurance until the retiree receives Medicare.

The county, which is self-insured, currently allocates $596 per month for the health insurance.