Cancelled checks show how the Cherokee County solicitor’s office used fees collected from defendants to pay for birthday cakes, lunches and flowers.

Metro county used defendants’ fees for cakes, flowers and iPads

“To me it certainly reeks of a slush fund.”

That’s what one accounting expert told me when I explained the unorthodox way the Cherokee County solicitor general’s office does business.

The solicitor is the prosecutor of misdemeanor crimes and for years the Cherokee office has been funneling legal fees it collects into a special checking account to purchase office chairs, refrigerators, birthday cakes, lunches, iPads and more.

An account like this separate from the official budget is ripe for abuse, said Lowell Mooney, chairman of The Georgia Society of Certified Public Accountants and professor at Georgia Southern University.

Cherokee attorney Channing Ruskell is blowing the whistle on the practice, claiming the money from defense fees rightly belongs to taxpayers and should not be diverted without budgetary oversight. Ruskell has an ax to grind, but that takes a little explaining.

Ruskell was county solicitor until 2002 when he lost to David Cannon Jr. Ever since, Ruskell and Cannon have squared up again and again, with voters choosing Cannon each time.

It was Cannon, now a Superior Court judge, who established the checking account and — you might have guessed this — Ruskell is running against him again.

Cannon defended the account as a legitimate way to retain fees his office was generating. If he put the money in the county treasury, there was “no mechanism for me to receive the money for the county and get credit,” he said.

While he has no such account as a judge, Cannon seemed to think his solution while solicitor was not unusual at all.

“I’m aware that many jurisdictions have similar things throughout the state,” he said, although he could not name one.

Bob Jackson, a certified fraud investigator and accounting professor at Georgia Southern University, said the existence of such an account “sets people up for questions that may be very uncomfortable.”

The fees used to fund the account are reimbursements to the taxpayer for the expense of providing certain documents to the defense. It’s not excess cash, Jackson said.

“The money is coming from what they are supposed to be doing. Why isn’t it budgeted? Why isn’t it flowing through the system?” he said.

Cannon seemed to think the practice was common, so I called Matthew Krull, solicitor general for Douglas County. Not only does Krull not have his own office checking account, he doesn’t even charge evidence fees.

“We give them more than we are required to under the law,” he said. Krull said it makes sense. Once defendants get a good look at the evidence against them, they often are more willing to plead guilty than fight the charges, he said.

They still need office supplies and money for conferences and training in Douglas County, but Krull said he makes do with the money in his budget.

iPads and Italian food

Office supplies are one thing, but bank records from Cannon’s tenure have some head-tilting items.

There’s a $330 check to an Italian restaurant in Canton that cleared in early January 2012 with the memo “Christmas luncheon,” followed closely by a check for $80.83 to Papa John’s pizza. There are checks to local florists for funerals and housewarmings and checks covering numerous visits to Publix with notations celebrating someone’s birthday.

Then there are the iPads.

According to county records, Cannon’s office used a county credit card to purchase $1,776.56 worth of iPads from the Apple online store in February 2012. The following month, Cannon wrote a check to the county from the fee account with the memo “repay charge iPad.”

Cannon said he believes in using available technology to make government more efficient. He said he used the account to purchase new iPads and then allowed his employees to purchase the older models, putting that money back into the fee account.

All of this — buying and selling county-owned goods, underwriting personal displays of affection or sorrow — is a highly irregular use of government money.

New solicitor uses account for office stuff

Jessica Moss, who was appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal as Cannon’s successor, inherited the checking account and defended it as a way to make purchases for her office without straining her county-derived budget.

There are so many problems with this line of thinking. First, the reason county offices have a budget is to restrain their spending. Diverting revenue into a separate account is just an end run around the budget process.

Moss said much of the money is spent on USB drives, small data storage devises her office uses to deliver evidence like police dash cam videos. She said she keeps her eye out for good deals on the devices and then buys them in bulk.

That’s the kind of thing you’d expect a county purchasing manager to do.

But bank records show numerous checks written to individuals in the solicitor’s office, including checks Moss wrote to herself, which she said were reimbursements for purchasing office supplies or court fees that her attorneys paid out of pocket.

In June 2014, Moss wrote a check to herself for $343.40 with the memo “chair reimbursement.” That same month, she wrote herself another check for $190.78 for “chairs.” She says she has receipts to back up all the purchases and that the county audits the account annually, but no one cast an eye on those purchases until long after they were made.

To her credit, the payments to Publix for birthday cakes and deli trays stopped when Moss took over.

“I realize these are not my funds. They are taxpayer dollars,” she said. “I cannot explain to you the trips to Publix.”

What the officials who control the county budget have to say about this is unknown. The county manager and chief financial officer both failed to return calls seeking comment.

Moss didn’t create the account, so I asked her if she could just do without it. “Potentially,” she said.

“I would want to have a conversation with the county manager.”

I’m betting there will be more to this story.

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As AJC Watchdog, I’ll be writing about public officials, good governance and the way your tax dollars are spent. Help me out. What needs exposing in your community? Contact me at cjoyner@ajc.com.

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