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Audit finds Grady County overpaid elected officials by $727,343

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DA requests audit of alleged overpayments to Grady County officials Grady County payroll fiasco spills over into state auditor's race Grady County salary fiasco leaves sheriff 'ticked'

Grady County District Attorney Jason Hicks, center [The Oklahoman archives]
Grady County District Attorney Jason Hicks, center [The Oklahoman archives]

CHICKASHA — Current and former Grady County elected officials were overpaid by more than $727,000 over a 10-year period, according to a special state investigative audit released Monday.

"I'm just sick over it," said Grady County Treasurer Robin Burton, one of three current and former county officials who each reportedly have received $90,959 in overpayments since 2008.

Ten other current and former Grady County officials were overpaid by amounts ranging from $4,987 to $85,972, depending on how long they were in office between July 1, 2008, and Aug. 31, 2018.

"I hate it not only for myself, but for everybody else," Burton said. "Nobody knew that we were getting overpaid."

State Auditor Gary Jones said the excessive salary payments occurred because Grady County commissioners repeatedly failed to comply with a state law that requires them to set salaries within a maximum salary limit.

Auditors traced the beginning of the problem to August 2008 when an 18 percent salary increase was granted to county employees and county officials despite advice from an assistant district attorney that only county employees should receive the raises and elected officials should be excluded.

"We found no documentation that the Board of County Commissioners approved the raises for county officials other than the approval of the budget request for the estimate of needs," auditors said.

The amount by which the elected officials exceeded the salary limit increased steadily over the years.

In fiscal year 2009, Grady County elected officials received $57,785 when the maximum salary allowed by law was $56,375. By fiscal year 2018, they were receiving $80,848 a year when the maximum allowed by law was $60,775, auditors said.

County commissioners voted to cut salaries in August after the mistake was discovered and have been in compliance with salary limits since then, auditors said.

Jones said some retired Grady County officials also have received excessive retirement benefits based on the improper salaries, but he did not know the amount of those overpayments.

Grady County, with a population of about 55,000, is just south of Canadian County. The county seat is Chickasha.

What happens next is uncertain. A criminal investigation and criminal charges are a possibility, as are efforts to obtain repayments in behalf of taxpayers.

Grady County District Attorney Jason Hicks told The Oklahoman on Monday that he likely will step aside from the case because his office represents county officials, which would appear to create conflicts of interest. He said he was still reviewing his options.

Terri Watkins, spokeswoman for Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter, said Hunter plans to assign the case to another district attorney if Hicks steps aside.

Grady County Commissioner Ralph Beard and Burton said they are waiting to hear from legal authorities before deciding what to do next.

"We really don't have a time frame. We really don't know how long that might take," Beard said.

"I'm hoping soon it will be resolved," Burton said.

Auditors identified these current and former Grady County officials as having received excessive salary payments:

Former County Commissioner Windle Hardy, $90,959; former County Commissioner Mike Lennier, $59,871; former County Commissioner Jack Porter, $28,120; former County Clerk Sharon Shoemake, $85,972; County Treasurer Robin Burton, $90,959; County Assessor Bari Firestone, $90,959; former Court Clerk Lois Foster, $20,079; former Sheriff Art Kell, $9,221; Sheriff Jim Weir, $81,402; Court Clerk Lisa Hanna, $70,879; County Commissioner Ralph Beard, $62,839, County Commissioner Kirk Painter, $31,088; and County Clerk Jill Locke, $4,987.

Auditors also found that three Grady County Fairgrounds employees received salaries that exceeded legal limits because their salaries exceeded what Grady County elected officials would have received if they had followed the state law that limits their maximum salaries.

Previous coverage

DA requests audit of alleged overpayments to Grady County officials Grady County payroll fiasco spills over into state auditor's race Grady County salary fiasco leaves sheriff 'ticked'

Randy Ellis

For the past 30 years, staff writer Randy Ellis has exposed public corruption and government mismanagement in news articles. Ellis has investigated problems in Oklahoma's higher education institutions and wrote stories that ultimately led to two... Read more ›

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