Casey answers commission, defends Tahoe purchase

The item looked innocent enough on the commission’s meeting agenda. It was a simple oneliner: “Consider District Attorney’s funding request from fund 761.”

The item concerned District Attorney Pamela Casey’s written request to move $60,000 to cover salaries from the worthless check fee fund (#761) to the district attorney’s fund (#760) for the operation of their offices.

The commission had granted a similar request June 9 when the DA asked for a transfer of a little over $76,000, also to pay salaries.

So what’s the problem? It’s that within a matter of days (before or after) of the $76,000 transfer, a new Chevrolet Tahoe had been bought – at a cost of about half of that amount, it was rumored – for the use of the district attorney. ( The Tahoe was bought in May, according to Casey.)

And whose problem was that? According to members of the commission staff and at least two commissioners, the public thought it was their problem, complaining at length over their poor judgment in authorizing such an expenditure for a brand-new vehicle in times of economic hardship when ordinary people are struggling to make ends meet. So the commission took the heat, but they used the meeting to pass it on to Scott Gilliland, the DA’s representative sent in Casey’s absence to answer questions about the funds transfer request.

There are a couple of problems with the public’s perception. First, the commission didn’t authorize the expenditure. It just approved transferring the money for a valid purpose at the DA’s request from one account to another. What’s done with the money is at the discretion of the DA.

Second, no one knew for sure that the transferred money had paid for the Tahoe. But that’s what the rumor mill seized upon.

That and the appearance that the vehicle had been bought in violation of state bid laws – i.e. not purchased off the state bid list nor advertised and bid out to suppliers. No one knew that for certain either.

But those questions and related ones were percolating around the commission rostrum and were pointedly asked of DA spokesman Scott Gilliland, who responded finally that he simply didn’t know the details of the matter.

District 3 Commissioner Dean Calvert asked several questions keying on where the DA will seek additional salaries funding now that the 761 fund has been depleted, and questioned the need for a new office vehicle, as opposed to a lower-cost used vehicle bought from the state bid.

District 1 Commissioner Allen Armstrong told Gilliland that, in light of economic conditions and public sensitivity on elimating excessive government expense, the timing for making a major vehicle purchase was very poor. “Well, it was stupid,” he said.

District 4 Commissioner Waymon Pitts asked how and where the vehicle was bought and whether state bid laws were observed.

To shed some needed light on the matter, The Blount Countian asked DA Pamela Casey for clarification – in the form of several questions concerning the vehicle purchase: Was the vehicle purchased from the funds transferred to the DA’s discretionary fund? If not, what account was charged? What was the need for a new vehicle? Was the transaction subject, in her opinion, to the state bid law? How much did the Tahoe cost? Where was it purchased? Was is bought off the state bid or were bids requested? Was it equipped with flashing lights and siren?

Following is a shortened version of Casey’s written reply. All the wording is hers. Parts of the statement were eliminated because they related to past history of her office and not directly to questions asked, part because of length. Casey’s response:

“I have absolutely nothing to hide. The Tahoe cost $31,000. The vehicle was purchased pursuant to all state laws. Expenditures made by officers using discretionary funds that are controlled SOLELY by that officer are not required to be let by competitive bid. A District Attorney may use discretionary funds for the ‘payment of any and all expenses incurred by him for law enforcement purposes and in the discharge of his office, as he sees fit’. While I was not required to do so, I did seek and receive bid assistance for the purchase, which resulted in an almost 20 percent savings and allowed me to purchase the vehicle from a local vendor.To be clear, no county funds were spent. The commission cut all funding to the office last October prior to me taking office.

“When I took office, there was only one operable vehicle that belonged to the District Attorney’s office. That vehicle is used by the office’s investigator for use in the field and to make transports. As the chief law enforcement officer, I am on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week. My duties require that I answer all calls at any time and travel within and outside of the state on a regular basis. In an effort to save the office money and to eliminate personal liability for using my personal vehicle to perform official duties, an additional vehicle was purchased.

“Since taking office, I have reduced spending by 10 percent even with the purchase of the vehicle. The FY 2012 budget is set to reduce spending another 8 percent for a total of 18 percent savings over my predecessor. I take very seriously the money entrusted to me by the citizens, even discretionary funds. So much so, that I consistently use my own personal funds to put gas in the new vehicle, instead of paying for it with office funds. It is one small way for me to give back to my office.”