Rocky Mount City Council

Councilman Andre Knight talks on Feb. 24 during a City Council meeting.

A key part of the findings of a probe by state Auditor Beth Wood and her team said multiple City of Rocky Mount officials prevented the municipal Business Services Center from trying to collect $47,704 in utility bills owed by a City Council member.

The report was made public by the state auditor’s office on Friday. Wood’s probe of the city began in response to 213 complaints about alleged misconduct by city elected officials and city employees.

Regarding city utilities, the report does not identify the council member by name.

Published reports and widespread comments on social media on Thursday indicated Councilman Andre Knight, who was first elected in 2003, to be the council member at issue.

The Telegram’s attempt to reach Knight via phone on Thursday was unsuccessful.

The state audit report said that investigators further found out city officials intervened to prevent the disconnection of the council member’s utility services and that the Business Services Center staff instead initiated a write-off process of the more than $47,700 owed. A write-off is the elimination of an item from the books of an account.

The report said that the council member accumulated an additional $2,989 delinquent utility balance and that, rather than following the normal collection process, multiple city officials gave the council member preferential treatment.

The report said that the city, under both former Manager Steve Raper and former Manager Charles Penny, allowed the council member to continue to receive services while the council member’s delinquent balance continued to accumulate.

According to the report, $11,096 was written off in May 2013 for usage from 1999 to 2010 at the council member’s property and the remaining $36,608 was written off in March 2017 for usage from 1999 to 2013, also at the council member’s property.

Specifically, the report said that in June 2016, the Business Services manager contacted the council member about past due accounts and that the council member, in response, contacted Penny to complain about those conversations.

The report said that Penny subsequently instructed Finance Director Amy Staton to handle the council member’s account in the future.

The report cited an email from Penny that specified, “Ask the Business office to not call (the council member) about his utilities. If there is an issue either go through you or me.”

The report also said that the former Business Services manager claimed Penny intervened under the direction of the council member.

The report said that Penny and the council member denied the assertion.

The city was given the chance by Wood and her team to respond to a draft report after the end of the probe.

In an unusual development on Thursday, a press release from City Hall both outlined the municipality’s version of the findings of the draft report and the municipality’s response.

The State Auditor’s Office, in the report made public on Friday, said the city made several statements that attempted to obscure issues, mislead the reader and minimize the importance of the findings and recommendations.

The report responded, in detail, to the part of the city’s narrative about the council member’s utility bill.

The city said a true or even close value could never be reconciled to the amount reported to the State Auditor’s Office and has never been substantiated by the city staff or the State Auditor’s Office, but was gleaned from a data dump by the Finance Department. A data dump is the transfer of a large amount of data between computer systems.

However, the state audit report said that, in this case, the data dump consisted of detailed records of billings, payments, interest and penalties for the council member’s utility account dating as far back as October 1999.

The report also said that supporting documentation of the more than $47,700 included notes to the council member’s utility account dating back to January 2001.

The report said that of the 234 notes for the account, at least 125 of those recorded by the Business Services Center staff related to communications with the council member about late payments, broken payment arrangements, returned checks and balance inquiries.

The city said that the council member’s account may have been subject to possible manipulation by unauthorized city staff for a good portion of the time covered by the write-offs.

The state audit report said that the city’s response offered no evidence to support the claim.

The report also said that a review of utility account notes revealed neither references nor claims by the council member of any manipulation of the account nor challenges to the amounts owed.

The city said that the utility account showed a high usage of wastewater service.

The state audit report said that, according to details of the account, only $3,066, or less than 6½ percent of the more than $47,700, was attributable to the wastewater service.

The city also said that the city staff presented instances of numerous other customers’ accounts having been managed in a similar fashion to the council member’s account.

The state audit report said that the city provided no evidence any other customers had their outstanding accounts handled in this manner.

To view the state audit report, go online to https://www.auditor.nc.gov/pub42/Default.aspx.