CUMMING — The Forsyth County commission wants the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the county’s elections department in response to issues raised in a countywide audit.
The internal controls review, begun last year by Sawyer & Co. of Dawsonville, was made public at Tuesday’s commission work session.
Chief Financial Officer Bill Thomas recommended commissioners "refer issues related to the voter registrar’s office to an appropriate outside agency to bring closure to these issues and to further fact find."
Sawyer & Co. looked at expenditures and revenues in all county departments. Thomas referenced two "weaknesses" found in the elections office. Those included consulting agreements between then-elections director Gary J. Smith and outside agencies.
"Those being in Cherokee County and with a company referred to as ESI," Thomas said, referencing the report by Sawyer & Co. "Those issues suggested the elections director was paid by those agencies while being paid by (Forsyth County) for the same hours," Thomas said.
Chairman Charles Laughinghouse suggested the Justice Department could "conduct any additional fact finding they deem appropriate, that they be invited into the county to conduct this review ... that they be given full cooperation and they take whatever follow-up action they believe necessary."
The decision to contact federal authorities, which passed by a 5-0 vote, "shocked" Smith.
"That’s absolutely the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard," Smith said after the meeting. "I think this is an absolute attack on my credibility, and I am shocked the chairman would do something like this."
Smith, who currently serves as chief registrar and elections board chairman, said the report’s allegations were inaccurate.
"It’s an absolute fabrication," he said. "It’s not true ... I worked at Cherokee County on compensation time — period. There was no time ever charged on that. Never."
Smith said the situation amounted to "a political vendetta."
"I have heard of trying to crucify someone in the media, but this is outrageous," he said.
Tuesday’s decision comes on the heels of the recent reorganization of the elections department.
The shake up earlier this month elevated Barbara Luth to supervisor of elections, overseeing the day-to-day functions of the county’s elections and voter registration department.
The county commission approved the reorganization, eliminating three positions in the department and creating two new ones.
The matter stemmed from a long-running issue over the legality of Smith serving as both chairman and head of the elections department.
Smith also has drawn fire for his use of taxpayer money. Though it was determined at the time that he probably had not done anything illegal, his spending habits resulted in multiple audits and calls for his resignation.
The county responded by reining in Smith’s spending in 2007.
That same year, Bates, Carter & Associates also performed an audit.
Smith billed the county for mileage and other travel expenses. He also bought meals for poll workers using county money. A report covering expenses from 2004-06 showed cause for concern, including reimbursement of 72 transactions totaling $7,081 that did not have receipts.
Former Commissioner David Richard, who served during that time, defended Smith on Wednesday.
"It’s ridiculous," Richard said. "Each of the issues (in the Sawyer report) have been addressed and corrected by the board of commissioners ...
Now they’re going to waste federal money on something that’s already been corrected."
Richard said he thinks the Justice Department is "going to laugh in the commissioners’ faces," adding that if he were Smith, "I’d sue the county for harassment."