Franklin County Presiding Commissioner John Griesheimer called the recent theft allegations against a longtime highway department employee a slap in the face.
“I’m really hoping he has a reasonable explanation,” Griesheimer said. “This puts a black eye on all county employees. There are those who think we’re all crooked already. Something like this justifies it.”
Last Thursday, a 30-year veteran of the department was terminated, one day after being questioned by Missouri Highway Patrol investigators over allegations that he illegally used county credit cards to purchase items over the course of several years.
The employee, who is not being identified pending formal charges, allegedly padded credit card purchases for highway department projects and bought items he later used for improvements to his residence.
The investigation was initiated after a fellow highway employee was asked to make similar purchases, but refused.
The anonymous whistle-blower then came forward and reported the incident to County Auditor Tammy Vemmer.
According to Griesheimer, the auditor was originally approached by the employee on Aug. 4
Vemmer has since been advised by County Prosecutor Bob Parks not to comment due to the ongoing criminal investigation.
“After she was originally approached, Tammy called (Sheriff) Gary Toelke, who contacted the highway patrol, and he told her not to say anything else to anyone,” Griesheimer said. “The commission didn’t find out about any of this until Aug. 18. (County Counselor) Mark Vincent called me and the other commissioners that day and told us the news.”
The next day, Vincent spoke to each commissioner individually so as not to violate Sunshine laws, Griesheimer said.
“He asked each one of us our opinion on what we wanted to do about the employee,” Griesheimer said. “We could have suspended him, but we decided not to do anything that could kill the investigation being done by the highway patrol.”
Griesheimer said the commission did not receive any additional information until the day before the employee was eventually terminated.
“They were holding a supervisor’s meeting downstairs and two highway department employees were interviewed by the patrol,” Griesheimer said. “It is my understanding that one of them admitted to the wrongdoing and his house was later searched, property was found and then returned to the highway department shop.”
Late Wednesday evening, Griesheimer tried to contact Highway Administrator Ron Williams to give him a heads-up that the patrol wanted to interview him regarding his employee and inform him of what they found.
That call came at about 10:30 Thursday morning as Williams and the three commissioners were in the Franklin County Transportation Committee meeting.
Williams informed those in attendance he “had an emergency” and left abruptly.
“Mark then polled myself, Jeff (Maune) and Tim (Brinker) on what we wanted to do and the decision to terminate was unanimous,” Griesheimer said. “Point blank though, the final decision was up to Ron, but we wanted him to know how we felt.”
The employee was officially terminated at 2:40 Thursday afternoon, Griesheimer said.
Griesheimer added that the same employee had called in to the highway department office earlier Thursday morning saying he wanted to retire and asked a secretary to start the paperwork for him.
“This has been difficult for us,” Griesheimer said. “He was a very good employee. If we ever had a constituent problem, we could send him out and everybody would be happy. He was a guy you trusted and that makes this even worse. He betrayed the trust of the taxpayers of this county.”
The alleged credit card misuse is estimated at between $3,000 and $5,000 per year for at least the past three years, but there is speculation the theft could go back even further.
“I’d really like to know when this started,” Griesheimer said. “What happened? I just can’t understand what was going through his mind.”
Parks did not give a time frame of when he thinks the highway patrol investigation will be complete and what, if any, charges will be filed.