Tax moves were legit, county says
Probe of TABOR policies turns up no illegal activities
Top Mesa County officials say the Colorado Bureau of Investigation has told them that agents’ initial findings have turned up no criminal wrongdoing in connection with questions about the county’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights calculations within the last decade.
But that briefing — and the supposed implied clearing of the county thus far — happened without investigators interviewing the two whistleblowers who were the impetus for the investigation in the first place.
“I just wonder what they’ve been investigating (for the past eight weeks),” said Hal Mason, one of two former county finance officials who have doggedly tried to re-create numerous questionable financial strokes surrounding the county’s TABOR calculations between 2003 and 2009.
Mason and former county Finance Director Bill Voss allege more than $34 million was improperly retained by the county over that time, instead of being returned to taxpayers.
The complex scheme alleged by Voss and Mason was laid out in a July 14 Daily Sentinel article. Their findings were based on the county’s own financial statements and journal entries, many obtained via Colorado Open Records Act requests.
Initial complaint, briefing
County Administrator Tom Fisher points out that it was his complaint that sparked the CBI probe, following the specific allegations lodged by Voss and Mason.
Fisher said his briefing with the CBI last week centered on three main strategies that county Finance Director Marcia Arnhold employed, allegedly at the direction of then-county Administrator Jon Peacock.
The first was the county’s decision to exclude local sales-tax revenue from its TABOR calculations. The Sentinel has raised questions about whether that decision was made with enough public scrutiny, and two of the then-commissioners either denied knowledge of the decision or couldn’t remember how it was made.
The second issue was the county’s establishment of a TABOR-exempt “enterprise” out of the Building Services Department in 2006. After the fund was set up, the Finance Department retroactively subtracted revenue related to the enterprise from its TABOR calculations going back two years before the fund was even established.
Third, CBI allegedly scrutinized the Finance Department’s manipulation of $3 million received from a railroad grant related to the building of the 30 Road underpass. Financial records show the Finance Department excluded most — but not all — of that money in its 2003 TABOR calculations. It then added the revenue back into its calculations in 2005, when it was faced with a ballooning TABOR liability to taxpayers.
The manipulation of the railroad grant money — and consequent impact on year-to-year TABOR base calculations — meant more than $17 million was retained by the county improperly, Mason alleges.
Fisher said agents with the CBI, after consulting with lawyers in the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, told county officials in their briefing that what they did with regard to all three areas was “proper and supportable.”
If the CBI indeed made that finding, it did so without meeting with either Voss or Mason to analyze their detailed data, which go beyond the three specific areas mentioned by Fisher.
Central to the whistleblowers’ allegations is the direct involvement of Peacock, Arnhold, county Budget Manager Eleanor Thomas, and county Attorney Lyle Dechant.
And while the CBI, according to a spokesperson, considers the investigation still “active” and won’t comment on specifics, interviews with people involved in the case reveal who the agent-in-charge has counted on to provide him with key documents and information.
According to Fisher, it has been Dechant, Arnhold and Thomas with whom the agent-in-charge has been most directly connecting for information.
“That’s where the information resides,” Fisher said.
Mason — a former finance and accounting manager with IBM who additionally discovered an embezzlement scheme when he worked for a local company — has a different take.
“It sounds like Fisher set up (the agent-in-charge) to have the bank robbers prove they robbed the bank,” Mason wrote in an email.
Despite the CBI’s insistence that the investigation is still ongoing and active, county spokesman Ryan Cook said he expects a CBI report on the investigation to be issued in about two weeks.
“The investigation from this point goes to the Mesa County (district attorney) for determination of criminal activity,” Cook said. “It’s the CBI’s opinion that there was no criminal activity, but procedurally that has to be determined by either the DA or the attorney general.”