The fired Gretna city administrator deceived officials about a supposed outlet mall research trip and made other questionable expenditures not previously documented, Gretna city officials revealed Saturday as they expressed confidence that they now know the full scope of the problem.
In an exclusive interview, the Gretna officials said their own inquiry found that former administrator Colleen Lawry was able to override Gretna's ordinary system of financial oversight.
The officials said Lawry — and no other City of Gretna employee or elected official — used a city government credit card as her own, paying back her personal expenses and influencing the city treasurer to process the transactions that way.
The latest details are part of an unfolding scandal that emerged two weeks ago when the state auditor released a report critical of Lawry's spending and Gretna's financial oversight.
Days after the audit came out, Lawry was fired and charged with felony theft for her use of a Gretna senior citizens fund.
Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov said Saturday that the new information was disconcerting and distressing. He said sheriff's investigators and the County Attorney's Office have a lot of work ahead in piecing together all the information.
But Polikov said the county's investigation into Gretna is looking at more than just Lawry's actions. He said the investigation will look at all of Gretna city government, following every lead and spending transaction.
“I think the public needs some assurance that they're protected,” Polikov said.
The investigation had already widened to include Bellevue Police Chief John Stacey. His out-of-state travel for the City of Bellevue coincided with four of Lawry's trips. The trips cost their employers thousands of dollars.
Court documents last week showed that the Nebraska State Patrol investigated a tip that Stacey provided a gun to Lawry, who is not registered in Sarpy County as a gun owner.
Saturday, Gretna Mayor Sally McGuire and two paid consultants — City Attorney John Green and City Auditor Gene Garrelts — said their own investigation and audit found:
» Lawry never toured Atlanta outlet malls with two developers of a Gretna outlet mall project, as she reported back to city officials.
In August, Lawry wrote that the two developers “were kind enough to take me to various outlet malls” in Atlanta and “all in all, we toured 3 malls.”
Green said the developers told the city they were not in Atlanta at that time with Lawry. One of the developers, Lee Ra Johnson, confirmed that account to The World-Herald but declined to comment further.
Stacey was in Atlanta many of the same days for an International Association of Fire Chiefs meeting.
Green and McGuire said they are unable to verify that Lawry visited any outlet malls in four different cities.
» In 2009, Lawry exceeded the authorized level of reimbursement for tuition costs — receiving an extra $2,750 — as she attained a master's degree.
She had previously been asked to pay back another tuition overpayment.
» Since the state auditor's report left off at the end of January, Lawry used the city's charge card for $318 in personal expenses, provided insufficient documentation for another $370 in spending and booked three airline tickets for this month at a cost of $1,244. All but $10 of the personal expenses were paid back, and the airline tickets were canceled and refunded.
The improper use of the city credit card never came before the Gretna City Council, the city officials said Saturday. When the bill arrived at City Hall, the officials said they have learned, the treasurer would forward only legitimate city expenses to the council for approval and Lawry would pay the credit card company directly for her personal spending. Lawry told the treasurer that was how the transactions were always processed, Green said.
Some of the information has been provided to sheriff's investigators already, the Gretna officials said, and the rest will be forwarded to them.
McGuire, who faces three challengers in Tuesday's primary, said the city has taken the appropriate steps to look into the situation and now hopes to move forward.
Even so, Gretna officials said they are not done with their investigation. The city is still looking at the tuition reimbursement and Lawry's time off and now plans to go back one more fiscal year to review Gretna's finances.
But officials say they believe the problems are largely limited to Lawry's credit card use and her travel.
Garrelts, with Orizon CPAs, said he went back to look at all variety of cash payments in the period covered by the state audit and then carried the review through this April. The review found no improper disbursements in a sampling.
The auditor also reviewed all payments made to three different city employees and all five elected officials over that same time period. Only one payment — $116 to Lawry — lacked the appropriate documentation, he said.
Green said the city plans to file a claim on a bond it holds protecting the city against theft and expects to recover the money Lawry spent on her supposed trips to research outlet malls.
In addition, Green said, the city will not be paying Lawry any severance and doesn't expect to make any payment for unspent vacation days. He said the city will count the cost of Lawry's outlet-mall trips against the 100 hours of time she would be owed.
In the wake of the controversy, the city has implemented new procedures to tighten its spending oversight.
Gretna has canceled all its credit cards and taken out a single new card that the entire city government will use, Green said. Personal transactions with the card are forbidden.
An employee must check out that card from the city clerk, sign it back in after its use and provide the necessary receipts at the same time, he said. If the employee doesn't have the necessary receipts, the purchases will be considered a personal expense that the employee is liable to pay.
“If you don't have a receipt, don't ask for reimbursement,” Green said.
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