Robbinsville Town Hall. Courtesy of Town of Robbinsville

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Former elected officials in Robbinsville are facing allegations that they used town credit cards to buy food and gas for their personal vehicles.

State law enforcement sources said those accusations, made by incoming town aldermen who checked the town’s financial statements after they were elected, haven’t prompted an official criminal inquiry, but they have caused the new board to severely limit access to those credit cards and to slash the pay and benefits that elected officials in the Graham County town receive.

Newly elected alderman Brian Johnson told Carolina Public Press that the new board, which took office in November, heard about financial irregularities in the run-up to the election and that a brief inspection of the town’s records revealed multiple questionable purchases, particularly for fuel. In December, during the new aldermen’s first meeting, they took steps to curtail access to the town’s credit cards and also slashed their pay from $1,200 per month to $800 and cut their taxpayer-funded insurance benefits.

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But the extent of the questionable purchases remains unclear. Johnson said town officials haven’t taken a deep dive into the books yet, but expect to evaluate those records in the coming months. The records revealed multiple purchases for fuel over a short span of time and purchases at restaurants and grocery stores that appeared suspicious. Misuse of public funds in that manner could represent a criminal violation, Johnson said.

But he said a local law enforcement official told him that because the total amount of the purchases was only in the thousands of dollars, it likely didn’t rise to the level that would initiate an official inquiry.

A spokeswoman for the Asheville office of the State Bureau of Investigation told Carolina Public Press that the SBI received a complaint about similar allegations in Robbinsville “a while back.” But the SBI didn’t open an investigation into the claims because state law gives municipalities significant leeway in determining acceptable uses for credit cards and public funds.

If the town has a policy in place that allows those kinds of purchases, then the only recourse for the town’s residents is to elect new leadership to reverse those policies.

Johnson said he doesn’t know whether Robbinsville had an official policy governing the use of town credit cards, but that, if not, implementing one would be a top priority for the board.

Frank Lester, a deputy treasurer with the Office of the State Treasurer, told CPP that every municipality in the state is required to submit a yearly audit to the state’s Local Government Commission, which evaluates the financial practices of each town “to make sure they’re appropriately running their government.”

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If irregularities or deficient practices are identified during that process, the Local Government Commission works with the city to correct those practices and implement better accounting measures. Lester said representatives of the Local Government Commission also occasionally do site visits to cities after an audit, sometimes for weeks at a time, to provide hands-on assistance while those issues are corrected.

Carolina Public Press published a series of articles in early 2017 that compiled and analyzed public salaries in Western North Carolina’s towns and cities. The Town of Robbinsville did not acknowledge a records request for public salary information at the time that story was being completed.

Although the state Office of Budget and Management’s most recent population estimate for Robbinsville, in 2016, was just over 600 residents, as the largest town and county seat of Graham County, the municipality enjoys a regional significance beyond its population size.

Robbinsville is located on the Cheoah River, just south of Lake Santeetlah and Fontana Lake within the Nantahala National Forest and the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Michael Gebelein

Michael Gebelein was an investigative reporter with Carolina Public Press. To contact Carolina Public Press, email info@carolinapublicpress.org or call 828-774-5290.

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