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November 17, 2017
El Dorado News Times
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Arkansas counties differ on background check policies

County judge says issues in other areas prompted concern about Union County process

By Kaitlyn Rigdon
This article was published November 9, 2017 at 5:00 a.m.

Several areas in Arkansas have seen cases of embezzlement in the past few years, prompting Union County Judge Mike Loftin to question if he was doing enough to protect local residents.

Loftin said the reason the Quorum Court passed a new ordinance requiring background checks for all county employees was to ensure the county is following correct standards. On Sept. 21, Ordinance 1457 was passed at the recommendation of attorneys Burt Newell and Gary Burbank, who suggested it as a starting point to ensure the county is protected if something does happen.

In Farmington, the FBI and the IRS are currently investigating $1.5 million missing from accounts in the city. The money is missing from court fines, costs and fees and city general fund revenue that wasn’t deposited between 2009 and 2016.

In Garland County, a former administrative assistant to the county judge was found guilty of fraudulent use of the county’s credit card. The six counts of fraudulent use include two counts involving more than $25,000 and four counts involving more than $5,000.

And in Yell County, the former director of the county Emergency Medical Services and his wife were charged with embezzling over $600,000 in 2016 after being reported by an audit.

Christy Smith, communications director for the Association of Arkansas Counties, said each county sets its own employment policies and the association has never advised counties on the issue, noting “that really hasn’t come up.”

The News-Times reached out to five other Arkansas counties that have similar population sizes to Union County, which has a population of 39,887, according to the latest figures available from the U.S. Census Bureau, to find out if background checks are part of the hiring process.

Boone County, with a population of 37,304, and Mississippi County, with a population of 42,835, did not provide the information requested by press time Wednesday.

Of the other three — Miller County, with a population of 43,787; Baxter County, which has a population of 41,062; and Independence County, which has a population of 37,186 — only one did not already require background checks for county employees.

Baxter County reported having additional guidelines for the county tax collector’s office because of how much money they deal with each year.

But in Independence County, County Judge Robert Griffin said his office does not perform background checks on the employees that work in the courthouse, adding “Normally they know the people they’re hiring.”

“But I did suggest that this is maybe something they would want to think about,” Griffin said.

The counties contacted tended to leave the review of the background checks up to each department head to decide whether to hire or not hire an applicant.

Loftin said he disagrees with this process and somebody else needs to be involved in looking at the background checks. He has said he plans on putting together a committee to look over the results of the background checks with each department official.

The implementation of background checks in Union County has caused some internal issues at the courthouse, with Union County Tax Collector Paula Beard saying the ordinance was meant to target one of her employees and remove them from their position. Though she has not identified the employee by name, the only person whose form has not been turned into Loftin for the background check as of early this week was Conor Gleason, the executive administrator of the tax collector’s office.

Beard has said she completely supports the need for background checks, but has issues with the process being used, voicing her concern about Loftin receiving all of the background checks. She has said that she will continue to oppose the process until Loftin’s committee plans are put in writing.

In a statement delivered to the News-Times on Monday, Beard said she also has reached out to multiple counties concerning the new background checks.

“None of the counties with whom we have contacted implement anything similar to this Ordinance — regarding their county judge having the authority to review background checks for other County Officials, and then his/her discretion taking executive action,” she wrote.

Kaitlyn Rigdon can be reached at 870-862-6611 or krigdon@ eldoradonews.com.

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