LOUDON - The Loudon County Ethics Committee voted unanimously Friday to reprimand one of its own, Trustee Estelle Herron, for improper use of county resources.
Herron, a Republican candidate for Loudon County Mayor and a member of the ethics panel, admitted to using the county postal meter to mail out invitations for the Loudon County Republican Women's Club Christmas dinner.
Herron said the issue was contrived as a political ploy to get her to drop out of the county mayor's race. She said she used $44 of her own funds to mail most of the invitations and only charged $4.84 to the county.
Loudon County Mayor Doyle Arp said he was notified about the improper use of the postage machine by way of an anonymous letter on Jan. 11 that included a copy of the postmark on a mailed invitation with the county postal meter number clearly visible.
"I immediately launched an investigation into the allegation in an attempt to determine whether the county resources had been misused for activities that were unrelated to county business," Arp said.
Arp said he and county attorney Betsy Beck confronted Herron about the issue Jan. 20. During that meeting he said Herron offered no explanation for the unauthorized use of the meter. He also said that she admitted using the county postal meter to mail personal items in the past.
Arp said he referred the matter to the Ethics Committee after an unsuccessful attempt to get Herron to provide a receipt showing reimbursement had been made. Herron said that the Loudon County Republican Women's Club had since provided reimbursement for the entire amount of 48.84 postage used to mail the invitations.
"In effect, we paid twice," she said.
The use of county resources such as copy machines for personal use is not unusual at the county offices, Herron said. She pointed out that elected officials have no vacation or sick time on which to conduct their campaigns.
In addition to Herron, the Ethics Committee includes county commissioners Chris Park and David Mears, and Election Commission secretary Betty Brown. The committee requested an opinion from County Attorney Robert Bowman, who was also present at the meeting.
Bowman said that the committee could ask county commission to censure Herron, refer the matter to the District Attorney's office or issue a letter of reprimand.
Some members on the committee said they were concerned that the investigation was sparked by an anonymous letter.
"The first thing I would do is shred the anonymous letter," Brown said.
Mears added that he was surprised that the Ethics Committee would hold its first meeting in two years based on such allegations.
Parks made the motion to issue a letter of reprimand and an addendum to the county employee handbook outlining proper use of county resources.
Ethics committee takes
The Loudon County Ethics Committee has decided to send a letter of reprimand to Loudon County Trustee Estelle Herron for improper use of county resources and change the county employees handbook to make the rules clear.
At the Friday morning meeting of the ethics committee, Committee Chairman Commissioner David Meers opened the discussion of why the committee, which was formed in 2007, was meeting for the first time since its inception. The committee includes Betty Brown of the Loudon County Election Commission, County Commissioner Chris Parks, County Commissioner Earlena Maples - who was not in attendance and Herron herself. Loudon County Mayor Doyle Arp was also in attendance as well as county attorney Bob Bowman.
Arp told the committee his office received an anonymous letter dated Jan. 11, saying the county postage machine at the Courthouse Annex had been used to pay the postage on invitations to the Loudon County Republican Women's Club Christmas dinner. He said he met with Herron Jan. 20 and she admitted she had used the postage machine.
Herron spoke up saying she had purchased $44 in stamps herself but they ran out before all the invitations were done resulting in $4.84 cents worth of postage coming from the postage machine. Upon hearing about the controversy, the Republican Women's Club ultimately remitted a payment of $48.84 to the county despite only $4.84 being charged on the county tab. Herron said the club would "rather pay twice than have our reputation questioned."
Bowman said there was three ways to deal with the situation- - it could be referred to the attorney general's office, the matter could go to the Loudon County Commission for a censure vote or the Ethics Committee could issue a reprimand and the county could adopt a policy for county employees and elected officials forbidding the use of county resources for personal or political purposes.
Brown said while the committee was formed in 2007 it had never met before and now was meeting on a relatively small matter. "For the past four years there has been so much going on in this county," Brown said adding she found it odd the first committee meeting was over an anonymous letter in the middle of an election campaign."The first thing I would have done was shred it," Brown said of the letter in question.
Parks said that though the amount was small it was technically a misuse of county funds and Herron should get a letter of reprimand saying basically "Estelle don't do it again." It was also noted if a change in the handbook was being made it should include a warning against using county copiers, computers and phones for political and personal business as well.
Arp noted his office receives a lot of anonymous letters and e-mails some of which are "off the wall." But, he said, when an accusation of misuse of county resources is alleged he has no choice but to investigate. He told Herron, who is running for his position as county mayor, "when there's funds involved , if you're lucky enough to get mayor, I'd hope you'd investigate."
Ultimately, Parks moved to send Herron an official letter of reprimand. He initially moved the letter be approved by the county commission but Bowman said that was not necessary unless they wanted the commission to vote to censure her as well. He also moved to task Bowman with researching the county handbook and to draft language to forbid the use of county resources for political or personal gain. Parks asked Bowman if the committee had covered their liability. "The Ethics Committee has fulfilled its obligation," Bowman answered.
Herron said she found it odd that invitations sent in October of last year stirred controversy three months later. "A letter (the anonymous one) did not appear until after I announced my candidacy for mayor," Herron said adding she felt the letter was a political ploy.
"Welcome to my world," Arp said.