Originally created 06/11/04

Policy breach baffles bureau

Against its own internal policies, the Augusta Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau allowed $4,000 in credit card charges to accrue for well over half a year before being paid, an oversight that likely cost the director of finance and administration her job.

While auditors found no evidence of fiscal wrongdoing, saying each expense was "approved and documented," it's still unclear how the breach of policy went unnoticed for so long. No one interviewed at the tourism bureau is saying exactly what happened.

Executive Director Barry White explained that responsibility for paying the bills on time fell to the finance director, a position formerly held by Rachael Meehan.

Mr. White noticed the charges in a periodic spot check of office paperwork earlier this year and notified his board of directors at the following monthly meeting in mid-March. Though the overdue debt was then fully paid, Ms. Meehan resigned at the end of April.

Mr. White wouldn't comment on the circumstances of her resignation.

When contacted at her Aiken home, Ms. Meehan would say only that the tourism bureau would answer any questions on the matter. She too declined to comment on any connection between her resignation and the credit card charges.

This incident comes to an organization that by all accounts can boast healthy financial vital signs, supported by a positive cash flow and revenue that far outpaces expenses each month.

Rather than a warning sign that something is amiss, it's more of a blemish on what has mostly been a spotless track record.

Still, all of those asked admitted that the $4,000 could have been spent better elsewhere by the nonprofit group responsible for promoting Augusta to tourists and outside groups.

That matters because the bureau receives most of its funding from taxes paid by visitors at area hotels, making it a waste of taxpayer dollars.

"All of our policies and procedures were in place," Mr. White said.

"Red flags don't automatically pop up when a policy is violated. But when the right policies are in place, it's caught. In our case, ours worked and we caught it," he said.

Mr. White said there wasn't any breakdown in internal checks and balances, but he still couldn't say why the compounding interest was left to linger.

"Credit card policies are under review to ensure this does not occur in the future," he said.

"If we can improve them we will."

The seven credit cards in question are used by bureau staff for typical day-to-day functions such as buying office equipment or renting a vehicle. Charges on some of the cards might have stretched back as far as a year, though Mr. White didn't have an exact date when the first payment was missed.

He also was uncertain how much was initially owed and how fast that amount ballooned to $4,000.

Devek McKinley, a manager at Cardweb.com, says interest on credit cards can begin to build up when a due date is missed or principal is not paid in full.

Internal inspections alongside due diligence done by the bureau's auditor, Fuller, Frost & Associates on Eighth Street, show "nothing fraudulent was identified and no one gained personally," Mr. White said.

That leaves the reasons for the lapse open to speculation, including the possibility that Ms. Meehan was either making mistakes that weren't caught or keeping information hushed for fear of losing her job.

Phil Wahl, the Augusta-Aiken market president for Bank of America and the tourism bureau's treasurer, said the group is considering switching to new credit cards that don't allow a balance to be carried forward.

"I was just coming on board as the finance chair when this happened, so I'm not too sure this would have been something I would have discovered in an internal review," Mr. Wahl said. "There's no way we'll miss something like that ever again, but I'm only now becoming familiar with my role, so I can't say for sure it would have been something I caught in my duties."

Mr. Wahl replaced B.J. Blackwood as treasurer in a normal rotation of board members that had nothing to do with the incident. Ms. Blackwood declined to comment on whether she should have spotted the accruing interest.

An annual bureau audit for 2003 soon to be finished by Fuller, Frost also did not catch anything out of the ordinary. After the problem surfaced, the accounting group, which has audited the tourism bureau since 1999, said it will look closer at credit cards from now on.

"At the request of management, on April 22, 2004, we were asked to expand our standard audit procedures to include analysis and additional testing on credit card payments and procedures," the accountants said in a statement.

Reach Matthew Mogul at (706) 823-3352 or matthew.mogul@augustachronicle.com



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