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NC5 Investigates: Davidson County Clerk

Scathing Audit Faults County Clerk For Wedding Fees

Posted: Updated: Jan 25, 2012 06:39 PM

By Phil Williams
Chief Investigative Reporter

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Davidson County Clerk John Arriola may have improperly pocketed as much as $119,000 over five years for weddings that he performed on taxpayer time, a scathing state audit released Wednesday morning reveals.

The audit also documents sloppy supervision of Arriola's office, including employees getting paid without having to prove they actually worked the hours, contracts being awarded without following Metro purchasing procedures and staff engaging in political activities on Metro time.

It follows an exclusive NewsChannel 5 investigation that first revealed the improprieties.

A spokesperson for District Attorney General Torry Johnson confirms that his office has received the audit, along with an investigative report from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.  Prosecutors are reviewing those reports to see if criminal charges are warranted.

State law makes it illegal for a county clerk to charge a "fee" for his services, although a separate statute allows such officials to accept a "gratuity" for weddings.

NewsChannel 5's cameras caught Arriola's employees routinely telling customers that they would have to pay $40 cash if they wanted to have their wedding ceremony performed by the clerk. In an email obtained by NewsChannel 5 Investigates, he also called it a "fee."

A response from Arriola's office, contained in the audit, claims that "there is no evidence, we repeat no evidence, that anyone who did not pay the requested gratuity was denied the services of the Clerk in performing the ceremony."

However, the audit insists that "sworn statements provided to the auditors and TBI from personnel in the county clerk's marriage department disclosed the county clerk required, with rare exception, a $40 cash fee."

"These personnel indicated they would assist individuals inquiring about a free marriage ceremony by giving them the general number to the county courthouse," the audit says.

In other findings:

  • As NewsChannel 5 reported, Arriola put his campaign treasurer Leighton Bush on the Metro payroll as a part-time "outreach coordinator," but did not require documentation or verification of the time he worked. In fact, "the clerk stated Mr. Bush had occasionally taken vacations and been off work as a result of illness. However, auditors could ascertain from payroll records that Mr. Bush's pay was reduced by an hour in only two instances." Bush received $63,085 over a five-year period, the audit concludes.
  • Another employee advised the auditors that he received 40 hours a week pay while working only three days a week or less since he was attending college fulltime." Questions were first raised about that employee by NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
  • As NewsChannel 5 first revealed, employees were paid for overtime that they did not work. "The employees thought the extra pay was a 'bonus' or a 'little something extra.'"
  • Auditors asked the County Clerk's Office for written policies and procedures. "The county clerk advised auditors it is his constitutional right to govern his office as he sees fit."
  • The clerk "violated Metropolitan government procurement policies" by awarding a consulting contract to his friend, David Currey, without seeking competitive bids. "The fact that Mr. Currey was renting property owned by the county clerk was not disclosed as a possible conflict of interest" to purchasing officials. That detail was first revealed by NewsChannel 5 Investigates."
  • Numerous employees told auditors "that the clerk's management staff had solicited campaign donations from employees on behalf of the clerk during regular business hours." Staff members were asked to volunteer for campaign activities and allowed to leave work early to engage in such political activities. Emails obtained by NewsChannel 5 also raised similar questions.

"This has been an extensive and time-intensive investigation," DA Torry Johnson said in a statement. "It has required the review of a considerable number of records and files. Dozens of people have been interviewed during this process. Our office has been in frequent contact with both agencies as this investigation has continued.

"Because this is still an on-going investigation, we can't speak to any specifics at this stage. Our office is reviewing the information gathered by both the TBI and the State Comptroller's office to determine whether sufficient evidence exists to warrant action by our office."

The U.S. Attorney's Office said that it could not confirm nor deny whether the Internal Revenue Service might have an interest in the matter. Arriola insisted that he had reported the cash he pocketed from the wedding ceremonies, but he refused to release his tax returns.

E-mail: pwilliams@newschannel5.com

Read state audit of Davidson County Clerk's Office

Related Stories:
 NC5 Investigates: Davidson County Clerk

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