ABC11 Investigates

Lawyer defends former Durham DSS chief

Friday, May 04, 2012

From health care to childcare, the Durham County Department of Social Services provides assistance for families in need.

But a recent audit found the agency was in need of some help of its own.

Click here to read the audit (.pdf)

Among their findings, auditors said Walmart gift cards normally used to provide emergency food or clothing to foster children were instead being used to fund office parties and reward agency workers.

The audit also questioned the office's use of temporary workers and contractors.

The audit covers a time period when DSS Director Gerri Robinson was in control. She was fired last July over concerns about her leadership and the direction of the agency.

Robinson has since filed a racial discrimination complaint and a lawsuit to get her job back.

Under Robinson's watch, county auditors said some of the nearly $206,000 worth of gift cards the state bought over four years - that were meant for families in emergency situations - went to pay for other things like refreshments at meetings and special incentives for DSS workers - including one employee found with more than $9,000 worth of cards.

The audit is now the focus of a Durham County Sheriff's Office investigation.

But Robinson's attorney told ABC11 he sees things differently.

"We allege she was a whistleblower," offered Jack Nichols. "She was pointing out wrongdoing, and pointed it out to the county manager and the county attorney and still got fired."

Nichols said he considers the audit a fishing expedition meant to support the county's decision to fire his client.

So far, no charges have been filed. The sheriff's office told ABC11 it has an investigator working on the case. Nichols said no one from the sheriff's office has contacted him.

"I don't think they're going to find any criminal wrongdoing," he offered.

But Nichols admitted some parts of the audit are accurate, like the catered Christmas party at Robinson's house that was paid for with county money. It featured some of the Walmart gift cards that were handed out as gifts for guests, including some DSS board members.

Robinson later reimbursed the county for the party costs, but not the gift cards. Nichols said she wasn't asked to pay those back.

He told ABC11 the party, and Robinson's handling of it, was a department tradition. He said it's not that Robinson broke department rules, it's that there were so few rules and procedures in place until Robinson made much-needed changes.

"She actually put in place the contract monitoring procedures that DSS now uses. She made sure somebody was hired to do the job it was to do that," he said.

But, county officials also raised concerns about several temporary and contract workers hired under Robinson, including a DSS employee who hired and supervised her own daughter.

Another concern raised by critics that was examined in the audit was a woman Robinson hired as a staff development specialist. She was paid around $70,000 over a 19-month period, and critics alleged her primary job duties were taking notes and performing as her driver.

Nichols said Robinson has told him that the allegation she had a personal driver is absolutely untrue and auditors found no evidence to back up the critic's claim.

Nichols said his client is a hard-working woman who was unfairly fired as she worked to improve DSS.

"I think the taxpayers and the voters, they know that something's up, and I think we're going to see," he said.

Because of the pending lawsuit and criminal investigation, Durham County officials said they couldn't comment.

DSS Chairman Stan Holt did recently issue a statement saying changes have been made to better monitor and control gift cards and the hiring of new employees.

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durham county, abc11 investigates, tamara gibbs
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