August 25, 2004

County auditor Robert Hicks and County Councilman Robert Weiner charged that $13,800 was paid to a risk management consulting firm, whose relationship with the county already was under question, without County Council approval in violation of recently enacted oversight legislation.

The firm alleged to have received the money is A.I.S. Risk Management, which Hicks cited on grounds of impropriety in an audit report issued in April. It is owned by Lynn Moroz, the county's former risk manager. It, in turn, subcontracts with Freebery & Houghton, a law firm. Michael Freebery, one of the firm's principals, is the brother of Sherry Freebery, the county's chief administrative officer, the second-ranking position in the administration, and Joseph Freebery, general manager of the county Department of Special Services.

Weiner had a $450,000 purchase order with A.I.S. removed from consideration for approval at the July 27 meeting of County Council to, in his words, "provide ... sufficient time to learn more about A.I.S.'s no-bid subcontract in favor of the law firm of Freebery & Houghton." He subsequently sent a memorandum raising several questions to county attorney Timothy Mullaney and other officials.

Mullaney was unable to attend the meeting of Council's finance committee on Aug. 24 because of a conflicting court obligation, according to committee chair Karen Venezky. The matter was then further deferred.

But, following the meeting and a subsequent County Council session, Hicks 'released' a one-paragraph memorandum, dated Aug. 19 and addressed to County Executive Tom Gordon, saying that he had "determined" that a check for $13,800 had been issued to A.I.S. against the tabled and unapproved purchase order.

"It is recommended that the county executive and Council work together to determine the appropriate response to this unauthorized action," Hicks's memo said.

Weiner said he was "surprised" that Mullaney was not at the finance committee meeting and added that the attorney had told Weiner's legislative aide that he did not receive Weiner's letter. Weiner also quoted a memorandum that Mullaney reportedly had written earlier which claimed the purchase order was not subject to Council approval because it merely was a vehicle for making payment under a previously-approved contract.

That was just one of several related developments coming on the heels of Hicks and Weiner having made public on Aug. 24 another memorandum from Hicks to Gordon which said he had "determined" that Mullaney lives in Kent County. That would violate county law which requires employees to establish residence in New Castle County within six months of being hired. Mullaney was appointed county attorney in January, 2003. The position is a political appointment.

For several months there has been open friction between the county administration and both Hicks and Weiner. Hicks is officially an employee of County Council under provisions of state law.

In another context at the finance committee meeting, Hicks said his workload has grown significantly, partly because "the number of tips sent to the auditor's office has increased." The office is a one-man operation.

At its session, Council appointed John Baxter, Deborah Horn, Susan Webb, John Wheeler and Peter Winnington, all of whom are in the accounting profession, to constitute an unpaid audit committee, which will guide the work of the auditor in much the same way that an audit committee appointed by a corporation's board of directors does.

Council president Christopher Coons tabled a proposed ordinance which would have authorized Hicks to hire outside auditors on a temporary basis to handle auditing that his workload precluded him from doing. That would be in lieu of providing him an assistant, Coons said. The tabling, he said, was to allow the new audit committee to recommend a course of action in that regard.

Earlier in the session, Council unanimously enacted two ordinances which Weiner sponsored to more broadly define nepotism in both the county ethics code and the law relating to purchasing services and supplies without going to competitive bid.

The former measure, of which Coons was a cosponsor, defines 'immediate family' as including spouse, children, brothers and sisters, step-brothers and -sisters, parents, step-parents and a spouse's parents and children in reference to proscribed conflicts-of-interest.

Those relatives are also brought within the scope of required financial-disclosure reports, but the law declares there can be no presumption that a county employee is aware of the financial situations of anyone except a spouse and non-adult children.

The other measure proscribes doing business directly with or with a firm owned or partly owned by a parent or sibling when the purchase of contract is not competitively bid. The law already forbade such dealings where a county employee, spouse or child is so involved.

2004. All rights reserved.

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