MASON CITY — An employee of the Cerro Gordo County treasurer’s office has been fired and office procedures have been overhauled in the wake of a state audit that showed a shortfall of nearly $284,000 in taxes that should have been collected.
County Treasurer Pat Wright said Monday the audit and investigation dealt with money the county should have received and did not involve misuse of funds coming in and going out of her office.
“We collect millions in taxes alone and every penny of that is reconciled,” she said.
Wright said she requested the investigation when she suspected vehicle registration and title transactions were not being properly processed in her office. Those fees were not properly charged.
“As I reviewed transactions, things started popping up that didn’t look right,” Wright said Monday. “I asked for the investigations hoping I was wrong.”
Deputy Treasurer Natasha Lewerke was placed on paid administrative leave on July 22, 2015, and was terminated on Jan. 4, 2016, after an internal investigation by Wright and county Administrative Officer Tom Drzycimski. She supervised five office staff, processed motor vehicle transactions and oversaw the work of staff work in processing the transactions.
The state audit determined policies and procedures for recording vehicle registration and title transactions did not follow Department of Transportation guidelines.
Paul Steier, director of the DOT’s bureau of investigation, said Monday, “We don’t believe criminal charges are warranted. We have turned all of our information over to the Department of Revenue for their review.
“If anything is found to be intentional, there could be a penalty. But sometimes there are exemptions in place that can make the penalty minimal or nothing at all,” he said.
The audit report said, “The county did not consistently maintain support for waiving fees, did not include notes in the DOT registration and title system for administrative adjustments or the reason a transaction was voided and did not follow DOT’s policy on passwords by allowing county employees to use the same password instead of a unique password for each user.”
The report continued, “Based on an investigation performed by DOT officials of title and registration transactions processed for a local dealership, certain required fees were not collected by the county, and the state’s share of the fees were not remitted to the Department of Revenue and the DOT.”
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The report said the DOT investigated specific allegations related to the transactions between a dealer and another company which upfitted the vehicles prior to their final sale to the end user. According to DOT investigators, the dealership only paid the first-time registration fee and use tax on five of 157 vehicles purchased.
“Based on the DOT’s calculation, the dealership and company performing the upfitting avoided paying approximately $283,867.50 in first-time registration fees and use tax,” the report said.
Steier he doesn’t believe any other dealers are involved.
“Nothing we found leads us to believe this is the tip of the iceberg,” he said.
The name of the dealer was not released.
Wright said as treasurer she takes full responsibility for what happens in her office.
“It’s my duty as treasurer to notify the DOT when I don’t think something’s kosher,” she said. “I also have to take responsibility for entrusting someone in my office for things that led to the investigation.”
Tina Hargis, director of the DOT’s Office of Vehicle Services, said Wright’s approach was appropriate.
“We always encourage county treasurers to report any inconsistencies,” she said.
Attempts to reach Lewerke for comment were unsuccessful.