BYRON — Nine months after a long-overdue, town audit revealed that money was missing, selectmen have requested that the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office investigate what appears to be years of financial mismanagement and missing town records.

The audit, launched in March 2018, was the first one in five years, and it was immediately clear that a significant amount of money was missing. At the time, newly elected Selectman James Ramey said he was certain the board would be surprised by the amount of missing money, and that when taxpayers learned the details there would “be a lot of shocked ears.”

The audit was launched after Ramey and Selectman Linda Joyal were elected and realized the town’s finances had not been audited since 2013. And, an audit done in 2012 was ordered because none had been done in 2010 and 2011.

The town is required to do annual audits.

Shortly after the audit began, Town Clerk Allison Freeman submitted her letter of resignation, saying she had been harassed on the job and no longer felt safe at work. She cited an incident on April 5, 2018, in the Town Office when she felt intimidated by Ramey’s wife while Ramey, Joyal and auditors were sitting nearby.

Freeman called police to the Town Office to intervene.

In addition to her role as town clerk, Freeman served as treasurer and tax collector. She had held those positions since 2013.

In her letter of resignation, she wrote that as the financial issues were brought to light, she had “come to realize that even though I tried my best and followed direction and policies of previous employees/selectmen, I was not fulfilling my job requirement to what some are calling state standards.”

Less than a week after Freeman’s resignation, Chairman Anne Simmons-Edmunds resigned, saying she was too busy to continue to serve her role. She had been on the board since 2008, leaving just Joyal and Ramey.

Joyal became chairman and, in August, Rick Comstock was elected to fill the vacancy left by Simmons-Edmunds.

According to a Jan. 7 letter from Ron H.R. Smith of RHR Smith & Company, who was hired to audit the town’s books, when he started his work in April he quickly discovered that the town was missing many financial records and source documents, which he has since spent months collecting from state agencies, banks, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, vendors and taxpayers.

The records were collected, he explained, to determine the accuracy of tax billing, motor vehicle payments and all cash receipts and disbursements.

“Based on the review of this information,” Smith wrote, “we discovered a number of irregularities in the town’s finances while conducting our audits. Those irregularities appear to include missing and unaccounted funds and accuracy of motor vehicle and tax information.”

Based on Smith’s findings, and on advice of legal counsel, the board requested “that the Oxford County Sheriff’s Department investigate this matter,” according to his letter.

Smith also said that, based on his review of town records received from outside agencies, his office has not been able to determine “the financial impact of monies or property that may be missing or unaccounted for at this time,” but is confident that between his work and that of the police investigation, answers will be provided.

The town is insured, Smith said, against this kind of loss but it will take time for the Maine Municipal Association risk pool to review and investigate the case before reimbursement can be made.

Asked to comment on the auditor’s letter and the resulting police investigation, Joyal said that, at this time, selectmen have been advised by legal counsel not to discuss details of the matter due to the ongoing investigations. “However,” she said, “the Board of Selectmen is working with the auditor and legal counsel to implement appropriate practices and record keeping for the town’s finances and adopt recommended policies and procedures for the management of the town’s finances.”

The town is being represented by the Portland law firm of Jensen Baird Gardner & Henry.

In his letter, Smith assured “all residents of Byron and any other related parties that may be affected by this matter that the selectmen are working diligently and expeditiously to provide you with all the deserved answers to the questions you may have and that corrective actions have already begun at the Town Office to insure (sic) that these deficiencies are addressed going forward.”

In an email to the Sun Journal, Joyal repeated that assurance, but said she had no further comment on the situation.

In April 2018, Rosey Susbury, who was appointed to replace Freeman, said the town’s Quickbooks 2015 software hadn’t been used other than to write checks and to record outgoing transactions. All incoming transactions had been recorded on handwritten treasurer’s receipts, a process that created problems for accountants auditing town records.

At the time, she said the town had records only for “the money going out. There was nothing posted for what was coming in.”

The audit has also revealed that liens on properties with unpaid taxes had not been processed for the past seven years.

Shortly after Susbury was appointed, she told the board she found a bill from the Internal Revenue Service for $600 in fines for late filing of payroll deductions.

The town expects to spend $17,000 or more on its internal investigation, including the audit work and legal advice.

Byron is north of Rumford and is home to scenic Coos Canyon gorge on the Swift River. The population was 145, according to the 2010 Census.

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Byron residents look over a five-page audit letter at the selectmen meeting Aug. 14, 2018. At the table, from left, are board members Rick Comstock, Chairwoman Linda Joyal and James Ramey. (Rumford Falls Times file photo)


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