Embezzlement or simple mistake?
State Auditor's Office investigating car allowance payments to county attorney
Last updated 7/8/2022 at 1:23pm
PASCO – Did the Franklin County prosecuting attorney embezzle more than $6,000 over the last 10 months or was it a simple mistake?
That’s a question referred to the State Auditor’s Office on June 28; the agency has been asked to determine if Franklin County Prosecuting Attorney Shawn Sant embezzled $6,420.84 between September 2021 and June 2022. It’s also a question that brought heated discussion during the June 28 Franklin County Commission meeting.
The investigation was opened after Franklin County Auditor Matt Beaton reported “irregularities” in Sant’s automobile allowance uncovered by a June 13 budget analysis.
Beaton notified Sant of the issue and denied a requested July automobile allowance reimbursement. He also notified the State Auditor’s Office and county commissioners.
“As required by law, we are currently notifying the Washington State Auditor’s Fraud/Loss notification system so they can investigate,” Beaton wrote in a June 28 letter to Sant. The letter was also sent as part of the investigatory record with payroll and reimbursement documents to the State Auditor’s Office and provided to commissioners. (Documents available online at https://www.co.franklin.wa.us/auditor/myuploads/file/sps-vehicle-allowance.pdf .)
The letter and documentation were shared publicly as part of Chairman Clint Didier’s report during the June 28 commission meeting.
“I immediately paid this back once I verified with my own pay stubs that this was erroneous,” Sant said near the end of the commissioner meeting in rebuttal to the alleged possible fraud. “I followed the usual process that has been going on for the last 15 years.”
“Thank you for paying that back,” Commissioner Rocky Mullen replied. “I think it was the right thing to do.”
Identifying the issue as a serious matter, Beaton’s letter, said the question should be addressed by an “outside independent legal review to determine if any charges are appropriate.”
Under Resolution No. 2021-186 approved by Franklin County Commissioners on Aug. 26, 2021, commissioners and the prosecuting attorney receive an automobile allowance in their paychecks for work-required, in-county travel in a personal vehicle. Sant’s allowance was $620.88 per month in 2021 and is $656.22 in 2022.
Since that time, payroll records included in the analysis show Sant has received an automobile allowance in his regular paycheck, beginning with the September pay period. Documents also show Sant was paid identical amounts through the county’s accounts payable reimbursement process from September 2021 through June 2022.
The analysis included payroll information, canceled checks signed by Sant and other documentation as evidence of the double payments. It also included an electronic accounts payable blanket voucher certification signed by Sant acknowledging his responsibility in approving expenses related to his office.
Moreover, the records show Sant personally approved six of the 10 overpayments to himself.
During the June 28 meeting, Didier called the budget analysis “very well done.”
“The facts are so compelling that I think we need an independent review,” he said, concurring with the county auditor’s request. “This is twice now that our travel vouchers have been abused.”
Didier was referring to a previous incident in which county commissioners were overpaid and forced to pay back travel funds.
“Choose your words carefully right now when you start accusing people of abusing the process,” Commissioner Lowell "Brad" Peck responded.
Peck was among those required to repay taxpayer dollars in the previous incident.
Neither Didier nor Mullen were commissioners at the time those overpayments occurred.
Sant called the allegations against him “very concerning” and noted that he self-reported the double payments to the State Attorney General’s Office for review after it was brought to his attention by Beaton.
“There is nothing nefarious here,” he said.
According to Sant and his employee Kelly Shadler, the overpayments were a simple mistake.
Shadler, who spoke at the meeting, defended her boss, noting she’s been managing the travel allowance payment for Sant for about 15 years.
She said she was never notified of the change in the automobile allowance policy last year, not by the auditor, commissioners or Sant.
According to Shadler, she asked employees in the Franklin County Auditor’s Office for information on any changes to the car allowance policy at the beginning of the year, about four months after the process was implemented.
“I got nothing,” she said. “How would I know not to process payment without them letting me know.”
Shadler said she was “completely shocked” by the budget analysis and felt “slandered.”
“I can’t imagine that Shawn would double-dip on his allowance,” she said.
“How do you not know you got double pay,” Commission Mullen responded rhetorically. “I can see it once, but not 10 months.”
Shadler called the analysis and report to the State Auditor’s Office a “political agenda.”
Chairman Didier disagreed, again calling for an outside investigation of the alleged “double-dipping.”
“The evidence was so compelling,” Didier said. “He (Sant) was getting two amounts of the same travel allowance.”
Sant called the payments a mistake, noting that he doesn’t get a paycheck — his regular salary is paid through an online portal, making it easier to overlook something like a car allowance, he said.
After being notified of the budget analysis, Sant said he logged into his account and there “was nothing really that jumped out as inconsistent.”
Then he compared it to his automobile allowance, where he verified the overpayment.
“I’m trying to do the right thing,” he said, saying there is a “glitch” in the county’s payment system.
“The paystub data and W-2 information doesn’t seem to reconcile,” he said.
When contacted on the budget analysis Wednesday, July 6, Beaton said his job is to look at the numbers and report the findings.
Since the county has had a recent history with automobile allowance issues and embezzlement, the matter couldn’t just be swept under the rug because Sant repaid the funds, he said, noting Sant, as the county’s top attorney, should be held to a higher standard than an average county employee.
He also said an experienced, elected prosecuting attorney should know better.
Sant acknowledged changes in the automobile allowance process previously via email and should’ve been fully aware of his actions, Beaton said. Moreover, since Sant was also involved in recent car allowance issues and an embezzlement case, he should’ve been up to speed on the repercussions of the alleged double-dipping.