When former Liberty city clerk Erin Lewis realized she had accidentally used her city-issued credit card to buy groceries at Ingles, she immediately went to the city treasurer to pay back the money, according to a statement she gave the State Law Enforcement Division.
“She told me that it was no big deal, that it happens all the time and if I used it for anything personal, just be sure to pay it back,” Lewis wrote in a statement to SLED.
That was the beginning of trouble for Lewis, who was fired after running up a credit card bill of $10,105 for personal items before the city’s auditor discovered what was happening, according to SLED’s report on its investigation into the small Pickens County town’s finances.
She paid everything she owed the city a few days after SLED began its investigation, the report says.
Mayor Eric Boughman also used his city credit card routinely for personal purchases, with charges totaling $2,819 over six months, but he paid the city back each month to clear the balance, the SLED report says.
The 13th Circuit Solicitor’s Office reviewed SLED’s investigative file and decided not to seek criminal charges in the case.
“Based on the information provided, I conclude that the facts detailed in your report do not establish any criminal behavior sufficient to warrant prosecution of any suspect listed above,” Deputy Solicitor Betty Strom wrote in a May 6 letter to SLED.
Strom declined to comment on the decision.
Attempts to reach Boughman and Lewis on Thursday were unsuccessful.
The SLED report, obtained under the state Freedom of Information Act, tells a tale of a small town that had no policy regarding the use of public funds for personal expenditures. A town where receipts for city purchases sometimes weren’t kept.
One employee owed $995 on a payroll advance, and another owed $884 on an insurance over-payment at the time the SLED probe began, the report says.
The mayor wrote to both of them telling them to make arrangements to pay what they owed immediately.
The investigation began in June 2015, after City Councilman Brian Petersen alerted the city attorney, Jenny Barwick, that the city’s external auditor, Drake Curry, had discovered “missing money” while conducting the city’s yearly audit.
Barwick contacted SLED, but a few days later she tried to back out of asking for an investigation.
On June 22, 2015, three days after Barwick first contacted SLED, Lt. Elizabeth Corley telephoned the city attorney, the report says. Barwick “told her that she may have jumped the gun in reporting the missing money to us and that she said she was probably gonna call for an executive session of council and mayor and that they would either let the guilty parties pay the money back and resign or report to law enforcement,” Corley wrote in an email to SLED Capt. Robbie Hendrix.
Corley told the attorney she couldn’t do that. She said, "That the monies taken was taxpayer monies and you can’t allow them to pay it back; especially now that it has been reported.”
Barwick then sent Corley an email outlining the issues in the case and pledging to cooperate with SLED but without asking for an investigation.
The probe proceeded anyway.
In his statement to SLED, Boughman said he was issued a city credit card with his name on it about a month after he was elected mayor in December 2013.
“There was no policy regarding this card, nor any instructions on what to do or not to do,” he wrote.
He said he used it both for city purchases and personal purchases.
“I did not think that it was wrong, and I did not think it was enough to realize that it could be perceived as wrong,” he wrote. “I used the card mostly out of convenience, but I never carried a balance on the card.”
Records show that he marked on the bills which purchases were personal and paid the balance on them each month.
He used the card to buy such items as groceries, meals at restaurants and to pay a $386 cable TV bill.
His biggest personal charges on the card were $700 for airline tickets and more than $900 for hotel rooms, records show.
“I now realize that this is not a best business practice, and have since enacted a policy in Liberty forbidding the use of our city credit cards for anything personal in nature,” he wrote.
Boughman also cashed a $1,000 check, “presumably for sports equipment for a team he was the head coach for at the time,” but he couldn’t provide a receipt for it, the report says.
In her statement, Lewis said she started out paying off her credit card charges for personal items at the end of each month.
Then she was out of work for nearly a month for surgery, she said.
“I forgot about the bills,” she wrote. “We were so busy at work – I just didn’t think about repayment.”
She said she realized in May 2015 that she hadn’t paid the city back for personal purchases.
She said she told the mayor about the issue and made arrangements to pay the money back before she knew about the SLED investigation.
“I want everyone to know that I didn’t pay back the money due to a criminal investigation – I paid it back when I found it preparing for the city audit,” she wrote.
The mayor told SLED agents, "He did not think Lewis did it maliciously, but felt spending just got away from her."
She also paid back money she received when she said she had inadvertently paid herself twice during the same pay period.
In a separate statement in the SLED file, Lewis described how she started as city clerk in February 2014 with very little training. Seven months later, she was asked to take on the duties of treasurer as well, she wrote.
“I told (the mayor) that my background was not in accounting and I wasn’t even aware of what all the current treasurer’s duties were,” she wrote.
Boughman “told me I would be fine, that he had confidence in my abilities.”
He told her that the treasurer at the time was retiring and would train her before she left, Lewis wrote.
“When I asked the current treasurer about this, she said she in fact did not want to retire and that one person could not handle both of those jobs,” Lewis wrote. “However, the treasurer was voted out of her position at the next council meeting.”
Lewis said she got no training on how to use the payroll software, and city employees had been having trouble with the program.
In preparing her own paycheck, she tried to send it to her bank account by direct deposit, and it didn’t appear to go, she said. The same thing happened with two other employees, she said.
So she told the mayor and he signed a paper check for her and the others, Lewis said.
About six weeks later, she realized that the electronic deposit had been made, so she and the others had been paid twice.
Boughman “told me not to worry about it, it was a mistake and it was fine,” Lewis wrote.
She paid back that $1,356 on the day she was put on administrative leave, on June 24, 2015, two days after the SLED investigation began, the records show.
Many of Lewis’ personal purchases on the city credit card were made at Ingles and CVS, including more than $400 at the pharmacy during the month after her surgery.
She also spent hundreds of dollars at Belk’s, J.C. Penny, Goody’s, Vera Bradley E commerce, Old Navy and Nail Spa, the records show.
Lewis made personal charges at Ace Hardware, Target and Academy Sports and Outdoors, according to the credit card bill.
The auditor noted more than $1,000 in credit card charges that “were allegedly work related” but receipts were not submitted.
“There also appears to be some other issues with petty cash, cell phone upgrades, improper approval of financial transactions and other matters,” in the auditor’s report.
At the completion of the investigation, however, SLED still had not been able to obtain a copy of the final city audit.
“As of this date, Lt. Corley has not received the finalized audit or an official letter from the auditors stating no other problems were found,” the report says.