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HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) -
Four out of five Hattiesburg City Council members wrote a letter to the state auditor's office on Thursday expressing concern about the fraudulent use of city-owned gasoline cards. At the December 17 city council meeting, the council was asked to approve two items on the claims docket that involve fraudulent use of city gas cards.
The bills in question are from Pine Belt Oil, which showed fuel charges of $313 on a card issued to one city pickup truck, and a charge for almost $10,000 to a card issued to a city-owned Dodge Caravan.
Discussion during Tuesday's council meeting showed that both vehicles are not functioning. Discussion also showed that the cards have been fraudulently used since at least July 2013, but it is very possible the cards had been used since January 2013, and that city personnel who knew of the fraudulent charges did not cancel the cards, nor did they notify the council. Rather, the charges were placed on claims dockets routinely for council approval.
A letter from the city council to the state auditor's office was requested, with the exception of councilwoman Deborah Delgado. In the letter, council members requested the state auditor for guidance and to investigate the matter. The city council members closed the letter to the state auditor in saying their intent is to institute an accountability that has been missing. Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree said in an eariler interview that they are making outstanding progress in the investigation. He gave no further specifications.
An investigation is now underway regarding city owned gas cards that have come under question. The first reports of fraudulent charges were in June, and the amounts were small. Police as well as water and sewer director Matt Boutwell were notified.
Two gas cards were apparently canceled after that incident. According to council members, they were never informed. Three months later, more charges have been uncovered. City Councilman Carter Carroll addressed a bill of almost $10,000 over a one months time span has not been paid, and is now under investigation
"It could add up to a substantial amount of money that the citizens of Hattiesburg are being duped out of," Carroll said.
Carroll said the fraud has been ongoing for more than six months, and Mayor Johnny DuPree informed the council of the charges only two nights ago.
Carroll said someone could have taken a gas card out of a parked, disabled city vehicle and spread the wealth throughout the city. According to Carroll, the process of stealing the card and fueling up is simple, being that the pin number is written on the back of the credit cards.
The transaction list shows charges made at Minit Mart #20, a charge made for 75 dollars, another for 60 dollars, 47 dollars, and 34 dollars all within a seven minute time span.
"Probably several people need to lose their job, if not worse. We were given claims on our dockets that we were approving that we had no idea that these were fraudulent claims and that we should have known about," said Carroll. "All of these are commonplace in every business in most government organizations. They have auditing tracks and it just makes good sense and why we did not do that? That's a crime in itself."
The city does not utilize auditing software to keep up with gas transactions. There are reports that investigators from the state auditors office were at Tuesday night's council meeting.
On Tuesday, the focus of the Hattiesburg City Council meeting was the apparent unauthorized use of city gas cards. Some council members wanted an explanation about a bill from Pine Belt Oil Company that was issued to the city council for payment.
"I have some fraudulent purchases, um, there are two vehicle units that are involved that I 'am aware of right now, that I've been made aware of today. Those units have been parked and the gas cards were being used," said the City of Hattiesburg's Chief Financial Officer, Connie Everett, to council members.
Back in March, there were questionable expenditures that were later approved and paid for by the city. Another incident occurred in June where more unauthorized transactions were made on a city owned gas card. The final straw for city council happened in November when they received a bill for almost $10,000. Council members spouted off to Hattiesburg's Mayor Johnny DuPree that something similar happened during Katrina, but DuPree said they switched to gas credit cards to prevent another Katrina related mishap.
"You know, this has been going on for six months or so," said Ward 3 councilman Carter Carroll.
"People in the administration have known about this and the council has been given claims dockets."
Fraudulent claims dockets that the council was told to approve over a six-month time span.
"They knew that these charges were fraudulent and yet we come up and the council approves these claims," Carroll said.
Carter Carroll said Mayor DuPree waited six months to tell the city council about the fraudulent transactions. He also added that five transactions from the same card were made in a ten minute time span at one point.
"Somebody put the five of us (council members) in jeopardy," Carroll said.
"And I'm upset. I don't like being played like this."
Carroll became more frustrated.
"The abuse is horrendous."
If outsiders did get their hands on city employee gas cards, the process would be simple.
"We have cards and the pin number is written on the back of the card so anyone can use it," Carroll added.
CFO Connie Everett added that polygraph tests will be issued to city employees as an investigation continues.
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