State audit: Former town finance officer used taxpayer money for her utility bills and other questionable purchases

State Auditor Beth Wood

An investigative audit into spending in the small Scotland County town of East Laurinburg found that a former finance director used town money to pay her utility bills and used taxpayer dollars to make purchases without showing those expenses were connected to town business.

As a result, the town’s bank account was overdrafted and it couldn’t cover operating expenses, the audit said.

The town has been in trouble with the Local Government Commission, a state government body that reviews municipal finances and approves their borrowing. State Auditor Beth Wood is a member of the commission.

East Laurinburg has not submitted annual financial audits for 2017, 2018, 2019, or 2020. The Local Government Commission recommended earlier this year that East Laurinburg lose its charter. Stripping a town of its charter requires legislation, and lawmakers have not acted on the commission’s recommendation.

The town’s former finance officer, who was not named in the state audit released Wednesday, wrote $2,674 in checks from the town’s account from May 2017 to January 2011 to pay her utility bills. She worked for the town from December 2016 through March 2018, the audit said.

The audit also found 42 additional questionable transactions totaling $8,542, including 14 purchases totaling more than $4,000 on a gas card and six checks written to the finance officer totaling $905 that  had “petty cash” written in the memo line.

A town commissioner who is the former finance officer’s mother cosigned some of the checks.

“There was no oversight of how taxpayer dollars are being spent in that town,” Wood said in a YouTube video about the audit.

East Laurinburg has about 300 residents and had an annual budget of about $75,000 for the year that ended in June 2020, the audit said.

The town does not have any written accounting policies and procedures.

The audit report included a quote from the town commissioner who cosigned checks for her finance officer daughter: “I can’t tell you if she had receipts or not. I just made a butt of myself and assumed that she had a receipt. I did not ask for one.”

The audit recommended the town seek reimbursement from the former finance officer, consider legal action against her, make sure all checks have supporting documentation, have an independent, objective commissioner sign checks, and have an annual audit performed.

Town officials could not be reached Wednesday. No one answered the phone at town hall and calls to two town council members were not returned. The town did not submit a formal response to the audit, but the report included a quote from the mayor saying that commissioners have decided to pursue charges against the former finance officer.

NC House Democrats condemn Lt. Governor’s homophobic comments. He insists he was talking about school materials.

NC Democratic House members Marcia Morey, Vernetta Alston, and Allison Dahle at a news conference Tuesday.

A group of NC House Democrats spoke in support of LGBTQ residents at a news conference Tuesday while condemning Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson’s homophobic remarks in a video that surfaced last week.

“We’re all here to affirm the value and importance of LGBTQ people, but I hope also to represent the kind of support that this community has in every corner of our state,” said Rep. Vernetta Alston, a Durham Democrat.

Alston and Rep. Allison Dahle, a Raleigh Democrat, noted the Trevor Project National Survey on LGBTQ mental health reported that 42% of LGBTQ youth had seriously considered suicide in the past year.

In a video recorded at a church, Robinson, a Republican, called “transgenderism” and homosexuality “filth.”

“When you live in a place where you’re pointed out as something not good, it’s really hard to process that,” Dahle said.

The White House has condemned Robinson’s comments. Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Charlotte Democrat, called on Robinson to resign.

Democratic lawmakers said Tuesday none of their GOP colleagues called them to offer support after news of the Robinson video spread.

“Last week the Lieutenant Governor lit a match of hatred and intolerance that deserves a response from gay elected officials and it’s what our constituents want us to do,” said Marcia Morey, a Durham Democrat. “Hate and name calling has no place in the public discourse. Just like the N-word is abhorrent, so is calling transgenderism and homosexuality as ‘filth.’”

Robinson posted a Facebook video on Oct. 9, where he said his comments at the church were about school reading material. He mentioned three books with LGBTQ themes, “George,” “Lawn Boy,” and “Gender Queer: A memoir.”

All three have been challenged in other states. Parents in Texas and Virginia had Lawn Boy and Gender Queer pulled from school libraries, The Washington Post reported. Both won are recipients of American Library Association Alex Awards, which each year recognize 10 books “written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18.”

Marshall University Libraries cited George on its list of the most recently challenged books of 2020-2021.

Robinson repeated the assertion at a news conference Tuesday afternoon, as a stood by a panel from the graphic novel Gender Queer, saying it was too explicit for schools.

“We talking about materials  – inappropriate materials – that are being presented to our children. And we’re talking about those politicians who have demonized me because I’m trying to get this out of our classrooms,” he said.

Robinson said he’s received racist messages at his office.

Robinson has a history of homophobic comments, dating before his election last fall. He did not want to discuss those Tuesday.

“I don’t want to talk about Facebook posts right now,” he said. “Let’s just drop the whole Facebook thing and let’s talk about the subject matter at hand.”

At the House Democrats’ news conference, Dahle countered Robinson’s  contention that he was focused on schools, and quoted Robinson’s comments at the church: “There’s no reason anybody, anywhere in America should be telling any child about transgenderism, homosexuality, any of that filth.”

Dahle said, “That doesn’t seem like it was focused on education.”

Morey called Robinson’s insistence that he was talking about school books a “bait and switch.”

“It started out as a church video, and it was disgusting,” she said. “And now it has pivoted to what kids are reading in schools. These are really two different issues. I that we all want good, solid literature that kids can read. Don’t conflate this with the words of hate and filth that sparked this entire debate.”

What might convince unvaccinated people in NC to get shots? A survey may have answers.

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Resistance to COVID-19 vaccinations in North Carolina softened over this year, with fewer people saying that they would probably never get the shots, according to state surveys.

But among those who remain unvaccinated, many say they are worried about side effects and don’t trust the government to ensure that the vaccines are safe.

The pool of unvaccinated people continues to shrink. The jump in vaccinations that came with the COVID-19 surge that filled hospitals in the last few months has faded, however.

As of Thursday, 65% of North Carolina residents 18 and older were fully vaccinated, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Surveys of state residents have shown over time a shrinking proportion of respondents who said they probably won’t or definitely won’t be vaccinated.

The ‘probably not/definitely not’ response was at 25% back in November 2020. It dropped to 21% in March and May surveys, and was at 15% in September.

Sarah Hutchinson, a partner with the marketing firm Neimand Collaborative, presented the state survey results to a group of Latina doctors, public health professionals, community health workers and others  at a meeting of LATIN-19 this week. LATIN-19 works to get COVID-19 information, testing, and vaccinations to local Latino communities.

About 1,500 people took a 14-minute online survey in September that was supplemented with one-on-one interviews and with an over-sample of 274 unvaccinated residents.

The survey found that, overall, seven in 10 people said they would advise their friends and family be vaccinated.

The FDA full approval of the Pfizer vaccine in August didn’t make much difference to unvaccinated people. Sixty-six percent of people who were unvaccinated and had no plans to be said the full FDA approval made no difference to them.  Fifteen percent said the full approval made them more interested in getting shots, and 18% said FDA approval made them less interested.

Benefits of vaccination that unvaccinated people were most interested in were preventing serious health problems; feeling protected while spending time with family and friends, and getting things “back to normal.”

More than 70% of unvaccinated people said they were worried about side effects, didn’t trust the government, didn’t want to be a “test case,” and thought the vaccines were rushed through testing and approval.

Right-wing legislators want to inspect Durham’s voting machines. Election officials say ‘no.’

A group of right-wing North Carolina House members calling themselves the Freedom Caucus want to crack open Durham County’s voting machines to check for vote manipulation despite no evidence of irregularities.

Members of the group announced their intentions at a news conference Thursday morning, and said they were picking a county at random. Durham is a heavily Democratic county and voted overwhelmingly for Joe Biden in a state that Donald Trump won.

“We started an investigation as to whether there were any foreign objects or modems or anything,” said Rep. Jeff McNeely, an Iredell Republican.

Later on the House floor, Rep. Zack Hawkins, a Durham Democrat, said members of the Freedom Caucus are not getting into the county’s voting machines.

“You are not welcome in Durham County,” he said.

In an email, Durham Board of Elections Director Derek Bowens said no one can open the machines.

“No one will be permitted to inspect voting equipment in Durham County as per statute and direction from the Executive Director of the State Board of Elections,” he wrote.

The Freedom Caucus for months has been questioning voting equipment. It had asked earlier this year for a random inspection that State Elections Director Karen Brinson Bell denied in a July letter.

“The State Board does not permit members of the public to access, manipulate, or disassemble certified voting equipment,” she wrote.  “Under Rule 08 NCAC 04 .0306, county boards of elections are responsible for the safekeeping, storage, maintenance, and care of voting equipment. Voting systems must be stored in a location such that ‘access is restricted to county board of elections staff and the system cannot be tampered with when not in use on Election Day.’”

Most counties use equipment manufactured by ES&S, and the company let House members look inside machines to show that they don’t have modems. Legislators said  Thursday that they want to look at machines that are in use.

“We want to randomly pick machines,” McNeely said Thursday. General Assembly police will help find evidence and secure the machines, he said.

Trump supporters stirred groundless suspicions about voting equipment after he lost the 2020 election. Trump backer Sidney Powell pushed a wacky conspiracy theory that somehow connected Dominion voting machines’ 2020 counts to long-dead Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.

Dominion Voting Systems sued Powell, Fox News, One America News, Rudy Giuliani, Newsmax, and  MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell for defamation.

Dominion machines are not used in North Carolina.

Durham is in the middle of an election season. Primaries for mayor and City Council seats just ended. One-stop early voting for the general election starts next week.

In a statement Thursday, Bell repeated that legislators cannot open voting machines.

“Unauthorized individuals who are not elections professionals have no authority to open and inspect voting equipment. Federal election security officials warn against any manipulation of voting systems, as that increases the risk of accidental or intentional damage, manipulation, or theft of assets and data. Any machine that is tampered with would have to be decertified and replaced.   Durham County is still canvassing from the October municipal election and voting has begun for the November elections. N.C.G.S. § 163-166.7(c)(1) requires voting systems to “remain secure throughout the period voting is being conducted.” Durham County must see that process through without disruption.   It is extremely disheartening when elected officials do not trust the process that elected them, nor the thousands of bipartisan election officials and poll workers who ensure North Carolina’s elections are fair and secure.   The State Board has received no credible evidence that the certified results are not accurate, and elected officials from both sides of the aisle have stated that the 2020 general election in North Carolina was conducted fairly. In North Carolina, post-election audits and recounts proved election results were accurate.   As documented in publications across the country, this type of stunt puts the safety of election officials at risk.

On Wednesday, a House committee approved House bill 259, which would require all voting systems in the state be manufactured in the United States by a company with headquarters in this country.

Rep. Keith Kidwell, a Beaufort Republican and one of the bill’s sponsors, said the cost was immaterial and that voting machine companies would move manufacturing to the United States to comply with laws.

The bill aims to protect elections from “any undo influence from outside the United States,” Kidwell said.

Additionally, the bill would link jury duty notifications to voter rolls. Names of people called for jury duty who say they cannot serve because they are not citizens would be matched against voter rolls and marked for removal. Their names would be made public.

Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat, said at the committee meeting that she was worried about mistakes and harassment of people on the list.

In 2012, WRAL tried the potential voter-to-juror match in Wake County after far-right political activist erroneously claimed to find non-citizens on the voter rolls. WRAL reported that the method leads to false matches.

Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed a bill in 2019 that centered on the jury notification  section of House bill 259.

Rep. George Cleveland, a Jacksonville Republican and a proponent of the juror-voter match, shrugged his shoulders when asked about another potential Cooper veto.

“I can honestly say I have no idea what he’s going to do,” Cleveland said.

Caroline Fry of Democracy North Carolina told the committee that the bill was an attack on state voters and contributes to election misinformation.

“This bill’s rationale is rooted in disproven claims that North Carolina’s voting rolls are full of undetected non-citizens,” she said. “It was done to get us talking, once again, about President Trump’s ‘big lie’ that the 2020 election was stolen.

“This bill is a dog whistle to white Americans that immigrants – specifically Black and Brown immigrants – are destroying our democracy.”

The vaccination rate in Orange County is not as good as previously thought. In Swain, it’s a lot better

Some vaccination percentages on the state Department of Health and Human Services dashboard look a lot different today.

It turns out, the vaccination rate in Orange County isn’t more than 80%, and it’s a lot higher in Swain County than previously known.

DHHS said in a press release Friday that information provided from the CDC from the U.S. Department of Defense, Veterans Affairs, Indian Health Services, and the federal Bureau of Prisons was based on where people got their shots rather than on where they lived. The revisions correct that.

As a result, the percentage of fully vaccinated Orange County residents fell to 60%. The recalculated rate is down to 29% in Hoke County from the nearly 49% of residents who were thought to be fully vaccinated.

Swain County saw the biggest positive swing with this correction, up to 48% of residents fully vaccinated from the previously reported 36%.

About 82 counties will show increases, DHHS said, with the rest showing no change or small decreases.

Statewide, 53% of the state population is fully vaccinated, according to DHHS.

Vaccinations increased with the rise of the Delta variant but they’re stepping back down to pre-Delta lows. DHHS reports 113,508 first and second doses administrated last week, the least since the week of July 26.

The CDC reports nearly 56% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation , the Delta variant, reports of hospitals and ICUs filling up, someone they know getting seriously ill or dying, and the desire to participate in activities requiring vaccination were major motivators for people who were recently vaccinated.