What does it take for an investigative auditor to get fired from the Office of the State Auditor and Inspector in Oklahoma? Apparently, not knowing how to, or choosing not to, properly and impartially conduct an audit and admitting under oath to being unfamiliar with OSAI and government auditing standards, after seven years of employment with the agency, is not enough. Secretly recording confidential meetings between the State Auditor’s office and the school district administrators and board members and giving the recordings and OSAI audit papers to the attorney for a former superintendent of the school district being audited is not enough. According to the OSAI main office and confirmed by their Tulsa Office, as of June 24, 2011, Sherri Combs is still one of their employees.
[UPDATE: On Oct. 17, 2012, a comment was posted on this blog from someone at the State Auditor’s office (using an official government email address from SAI) stated, “FYI… Sherri Combs voluntarily resigned from the OSAI over a year ago.” GOOD NEWS!]
Sherri Combs is the OSAI investigative auditor who conducted the initial state audit for the Broken Arrow Public School District, which was unanimously requested by its school board in 2009. Her audit was discarded in August 2010 by Steve Burrage, the State Auditor and Inspector at the time, due to his concerns about her independence. He stated “I think she was relying on information from people that had an agenda.” Burrage also said Combs “became the fact-finder; she became the judge; and she became the jury, and that is the indication of pure impairment.” A new audit was then ordered by Burrage to be conducted by different auditors from his office, to include the items that then Attorney General Drew Edmondson requested be audited.
The new state audit subsequently prepared by OSAI and approved by the current State Auditor Gary Jones was officially released by the current AG Scott Pruitt on June 9, 2011. Two objectives of the audit were redacted from publication until the AG’s investigation is completed. From Pruitt’s June 9 press statement releasing the audit: “In the interest of transparency and for the sake of those who were falsely accused, we felt it important to release the vast majority of the audit prior to our completed investigation,” Pruitt said. The official audit completely discredits Combs’s work and affirms that Burrage made the right decision to scrap her audit, albeit very late in the process, after he sat down with board members and administration in exit interviews and discovered how biased and incomplete the audit was. Almost all of the people accused of improper conduct were not interviewed regarding the allegations of misconduct and pertinent information was never considered by Combs. However, according to her sworn testimony in her December 2010 deposition, Combs:
- met with former superintendent Jim Sisney more than once but when asked if those meetings were documented, answered “Probably not.”
- held phone conversations with Jim Sisney’s brother, Thurman Lee Sisney, an attorney from Kentucky who has been deeply involved assisting his brother in his campaign against Broken Arrow school board members and the BAPS district from the start (but states she cannot recall what they talked about) and received emails with attachments from him sent to her personal email account (which she claimed she deleted without reading)
- met with board members Stephanie Updike and Terry Stover, both strong Sisney supporters, who approached her with information, briefly interviewed board member Shari Wilkins, but did not contact or interview board members Maryanne Flippo or Sharon Whelpley who, along with Wilkins, were accused of conflict of interest and conspiracy with HVAC vendor Air Assurance and violating the Open Meetings Act
- received emails from Stover and Beth Snellgrove on her personal email account
- repeatedly met with Chris Tharp and received documents from him
- met with Bob Townsend of Custom Services, and Keith Deaver of Airco Services, both Broken Arrow HVAC competitors to Air Assurance, and accepted information from each of them but never asked to meet with Mike Rampey of Air Assurance, the company accused of wrongdoing in connection with the Broken Arrow public schools, or reviewed any of their records
More disturbing are the revelations from her deposition where she states the following:
- After working for the OSAI for seven years, she was not familiar with OSAI auditing standards or governmental auditing standards
- she never considers potential bias of individuals or information received when conducting an audit
- Ricky Branch, the director of the Local Government and Special Services division for OSAI and her direct supervisor, was in charge of the audit and that he was the one who advised her not to interview key persons who were the focus of the audit. According to her testimony, Branch instructed her not to meet alone with Bill Miller, Gary Gerber, or Sharon Whelpley to interview them; he would join her in those interviews. She then testified “And then Mr. Branch made the determination that we were not going to interview Ms. Whelpley or Ms. Flippo or Mr. Gerber or Bill Miller.”
- she secretly recorded the exit interviews between OSAI staff and BAPS administration, board members, and attorneys, without prior knowledge of or permission from her supervisors (allegedly)
- she handed over the recordings of those exit interviews to the Richardson Law Firm, along with her audit working papers, after Burrage publicly claimed her independence as an auditor impaired, set aside her audit, and stated the BAPS audit would have to be completely redone. The law firm reported that it was not representing Combs legally, even though she stated she thought it was at the time. This is the same law firm that Sisney was using for both of his lawsuits against the district, board members, and Air Assurance. Is it a coincidence that the recordings and draft audit papers ended up in Rep. Mike Reynolds hands after that, with his intentionally leaking them to the mainstream media through a House of Representatives FTP (file transfer protocol) website shortly thereafter? Reynolds at first denied doing so, right after it occurred, and Burrage accused him of it, but Reynolds later admitted in his sworn deposition of 09/29/10 to publishing the early draft audit working papers and the audio recordings. Burrage stated “It’s sad that the collusion between a rogue legislator and one of my auditors is very evident now.”
Was Burrage the political victim of a conspiracy designed to unseat him in the November 2010 elections and place Gary Jones in the State Auditor’s office, using the Broken Arrow audit as a tool with which to do it? Was Branch knowingly working with Reynolds and Jones toward that purpose and was Combs a pawn used in their game? I can think of no other explanation for a seasoned auditor and director to have allowed the initial audit to go forward as it was.
If Burrage had released the initial BAPS audit prepared by Combs and approved by Branch, he would have been disgraced and discredited when it was proven to be false. When he did discard the audit and start the process over, he was attacked with false claims of his bowing to outside pressure from BA board members and the school district’s attorneys trying to cover up wrongdoing. It was a no-win situation for Burrage. Burrage was, however, justifiably accused of not managing his office properly. Was the problem that he mistakenly placed unquestioning trust in Branch and Branch betrayed him (and the people of Broken Arrow)?
Gary Jones has kept both Branch and Combs on his staff, most certainly aware of their unprofessional, substandard performance in connection with the BAPS audit and the negative consequences that resulted, including damage to the reputation of the OSAI under Burrage. Perhaps they have served Jones well.
Why should these two state employees continue to be entrusted with conducting and supervising state audits, after they so badly botched the BA audit? They shouldn’t.
UPDATE: On Oct. 17, 2012, a comment was posted on this blog from someone at the State Auditor’s office (using an official government email address from SAI) stated, “FYI… Sherri Combs voluntarily resigned from the OSAI over a year ago.”) GOOD NEWS!