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County money transfer questioned

Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker has been asked to investigate an allegedly illegal transfer of money from a Building and Planning Department account to the county’s general fund.

In a “whistleblower” letter delivered to Tucker’s office Tuesday, attorney Aaron Lowe says at least $1 million was “supposedly” appropriated from the department to help balance the 2008 county budget. The transfer was initially called a borrowing, he says.

But, says Lowe, county Chief Executive Officer Marshall Farnell recently said the money would not be returned. Farnell is not named in the letter, only his position.

Lowe is representing Steve Harris, an economic development service specialist in the building department, which last month laid off eight employees. The explanation given was a sharp decline in residential building permits.

The letter blames the dismissals on the transfer of money out of the department.

“The county has made a number of poor financial decisions and is scrambling to grab funds from wherever it can, even if (sic) means attempting to balance the county’s budget on the backs of their own employees and taxpayers,” Lowe writes. “Taxpayers should not have to continue to pay for the county’s improper and illegal actions.”

Jim Emacio, the county’s chief civil deputy prosecutor, responded for Tucker.

Responsibility for the investigation will be handed to someone outside the county attorney’s office, he said, someone outside the county if necessary. A whistleblower complaint made last year by former Building and Planning Director Jim Manson was investigated by the Whitman County prosecutor, Emacio noted.

Results, and whatever action will follow, will be communicated to the person who made the complaint, Emacio said.

Although county policy calls for the completion of an investigation within 10 working days, he said they usually take longer.

Commissioner Todd Mielke said money may have been exchanged between the general fund and Building and Planning accounts in the past – possibly to the benefit of the department – under a policy set in 2003, before any of the current county commissioners took office. A review of whatever action was taken is continuing, he said.

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