An employee whose program is being transferred from the regional health district to Wasco County used a long weekend in January to paint his new office.
The employee didn’t pre-authorize putting $54 in primer and supplies on a health district charge card, which spawned a police investigation ordered by Wasco County District Attorney Eric Nisley.
Other county officials called the investigation a waste of taxpayer money.
Nisley alleged in a Feb. 27 letter to employee David Skakel that Skakel wrongly used public health dollars to benefit another agency – Wasco County – by painting one of the county’s offices, which Nisley said he believed amounted to official misconduct.
Nisley offered a civil compromise in which Skakel would repay the money to North Central Public Health District and admit the purchase wasn’t authorized and that it benefitted someone else.
But on Wednesday, March 11, the steering committee that oversees the hazardous waste and recycling program that Skakel runs passed a resolution saying it “authorizes the payment” for the paint supplies.
Also passed was an accompanying memo, directed to public health director Teri Thalhofer, saying “we approve of all known expenses of materials and staff time” used to
improve the office “because we deem those expenses to be for the benefit of” the hazardous waste and recycling program.
But passing the resolution may not settle the matter.
Later, Nisley contended the resolution was potentially void because the matter was not listed on the steering committee agenda. He said he has not dropped the issue.
Skakel told the Chronicle, “I feel strangely caught in some larger shoot-out that I don’t understand.”
Thalhofer, who was not at the steering committee meeting, said, “That they think this is an appropriate expenditure is nice to know.”
She said if Skakel had asked for permission to buy paint supplies, the answer “likely would’ve been ‘No.’ We don’t have money budgeted to paint offices in public health or anywhere else. That is a function of Wasco County facilities.”
Wasco County Administrative Officer Tyler Stone said of the investigation, “I think this is a giant waste of resources.
“If it wasn’t approved, then the supervisor should’ve denied the request for payment and it should’ve been handled administratively. This would’ve saved hours of staff time over a $54 problem.”
Nisley said the dollar amount was immaterial. “The rules are the rules. All you need to do is follow them.”
Skakel told the Chronicle he could not speak substantively about the matter because “I have been accused of a crime.”
Skakel did say he was “sincerely surprised to come under any scrutiny because, with the exception of expenses for out-of-area travel, my expense submittal in this case is consistent with the 40-plus expenses I have submitted this fiscal year alone.”
He said, “If, as in this instance, it’s a weekend or my boss is on vacation, I have not hesitated to purchase program supplies for a program purpose with dedicated program funds.”
The procurement card Skakel used is tied to the fund for his program, which is in a separate fund from other public health programs.
The money for his program — which operates in Wasco, Hood River and Sherman counties — comes from a hazardous waste fee on local garbage services.
Skakel added, “Though I didn’t expect to be praised for spending two weekends knocking out the painting ahead of new carpet [being installed], I am humbled, and of course seriously worried about being accused of a Class A misdemeanor for my initiative in painting my new office.”
Wasco County and the health district have been vying for nearly two years over who administers Skakel’s program.
In early 2013, the intent was the health district, which has been housing the program since its 2004 inception, would keep it. But then the steering committee opted in late 2013 to have Wasco County as its lead agency.
The health district at first voted against the move, but also said it would ultimately allow it, as long as the member governments — three counties and six cities — of the steering committee agreed to it. Ever since, the health district and county say they have been waiting on each other to initiate the transfer process. Now, the matter awaits a health district vote on a resolution transferring the program. The vote is expected next month, with the transfer effective July 1, 2015.
Meanwhile, Wasco County voted in December to leave the health district in a year’s time, but rescinded its vote in February.
Wasco County was sued by a citizen who said the December vote was improper because it was not on the commission’s agenda.
The county is proceeding with fiscal analysis for a possible formation of its own county public health department in 2016.
At the steering committee meeting, committee member Gordon Zimmerman, representing Cascade Locks, asked, “How did this get to this level? Why didn’t Teri [Thalhofer] call Wasco County and say, ‘I’m going to invoice you for this bill?’”
At that, John Zalaznik, who is Skakel’s immediate supervisor, said, “Well, why doesn’t Wasco County pay for this now?”
Zimmerman said, “It seems to me the whole thing on both parties wasn’t handled well. I will sign this but I don’t like it,” he said of the resolution.
Other committee members were critical of the time spent by the county’s legal counsel in drafting the resolution and memo and police investigative time spent over a $54 purchase.
A The Dalles police detective spent six to eight hours on the investigation, according to the police department.
Nisley’s letter to Skakel indicates that Wasco County Commissioner Steve Kramer told the detective he considered the investigation “a waste of taxpayers’ dollars.”
Stone said Wasco County’s procedure for painting is to submit a work request that goes to the facilities manager. But he said that wasn’t relevant here because Skakel isn’t a county employee.
Thalhofer said painting at the health district is done by the Wasco County facilities department.
Origin of issue
Skakel told police he learned in early January that the office he was moving into was about to be carpeted.
He wanted faux wood paneling in the office – located at the county’s planning department — painted over, but the county said it wasn’t going to be painting it.
However, the county did provide him the paint needed for the office, he said, since it matched the rest of the paint in the building.
Skakel used the public health procurement card to buy primer and painting supplies including tape, caulk, a putty knife, two brushes and other items.
Skakel told the detective he decided to use a long weekend in January to paint it before the carpeting was installed, and so paint fumes would dissipate before he relocated.
He said he didn’t want to bother his supervisor on a weekend so he went ahead and made the purchases.
On the Tuesday after the long weekend, he put in for eight hours of flex time and submitted paperwork for his paint supply purchases.Both were approved.
The following weekend, he told the detective, he tried to use his procurement card for more supplies, but his procurement card didn’t work so he bought about $31 of supplies with his own money. He later learned the health district had zeroed out his procurement card.
His lack of purchasing power has caused issues since.
In late February at a hazardous waste drop-off event, the forklift ran out of fuel. He tried to buy some with the procurement card, but was denied and had to use his own credit card.
He said his procurement card is unusable “until this issue is resolved. My hope is that they would make an exception at least for our hazardous waste events.”
Nisley’s letter to Skakel includes a proposed criminal complaint against Skakel for first-degree criminal misconduct.
The charge alleges Skakel was operating outside his work duties by functioning in an unauthorized capacity as a paint contractor “with the intent to obtain a benefit, or to harm another.”
In his letter, Nisley said under the definition of official misconduct, the benefit need not be for the individual, but could be for another entity.
He said the benefit criteria is broad.
“For example,” he wrote, “an Oregon State Police trooper committed official misconduct when he engaged in sexual activity while on duty in his patrol car with a citizen.”
Nisley said in his letter to Skakel that Stone “opined that your conduct was appropriate and helpful” and that Kramer thought expending public health funds for the paint purchase was “not a big deal.”
Nisley said Stone’s and Kramer’s comments “add significant evidence that your conduct directly benefitted Wasco County and in substance that they appreciated you purchasing paint for the planning department office.”
Nisley said in his letter “I also believe that officials in Wasco County (at a minimum) gave you the impression that doing this would be a good idea. In spite of their denials, I believe they either explicitly or implicitly led you to believe that it was acceptable for you to purchase this paint (and to paint the office).
“I can find no other reason why you – as an employee of an entirely different governmental agency — would be given the keys to the planning office so that you could go in and paint. Such implicit, or even explicit permission, is not a defense to the criminal charge because no one in Wasco had the authority to allow you to use your credit card for this purpose.”
Nisley did say it was a mitigating factor.
Nisley concluded his letter by saying, “In my opinion. Mr. Stone and Commissioner Kramer should reimburse you for your costs for causing you to think it was ok to spend public funds in the manner you did. It is disappointing that these public officials behave with such flippant disregard for the misuse of other entities’ tax dollars.”
Stone declined to comment and Kramer did not respond to an email request for comment to Nisley’s statement.