Commissioners reviewing their role in investment controversy

LISBON -Columbiana County Republican Party Chairman David Johnson is not the only one wanting to investigate the county investment controversy.

Columbiana County commissioners are reviewing investment advisory board meeting records dating back to 2010 to refresh their memories as to the role they played in investment decisions.

“We’re going through all of the meetings and then we’ll respond to what was said,” said Commissioner Jim Hoppel. “This is to just set the record straight about who said what and when.”

Hoppel is the only current commissioner who was on the county investment board in March 2010, which is when the decision was made to authorize former treasurer Nick Barborak to negotiate a contract with First National Community Bank to invest $5 million in county funds through WesBanco.

Last week, current Treasurer Linda Bolon told the advisory board that a discrepancy in how interest income earned from investments was being reported to the county resulted in interest income being overstated by $118,779.

Bolon said she was advised of the investment income discrepancy by Barborak before taking office Jan. 1, and during the course of trying to correct the problem she discovered at least two of the investments made by WesBanco violated state law.

The treasurer, commissioners and county clerk of courts comprise the advisory board, with the treasurer serving as chairman.

Barborak, who is now the county’s state representative, sent a letter to advisory board members responding to concerns they raised at last week’s meeting. In his letter, Barborak stated that in 2009 and 2010 the board “expressed interest in further diversifying the county’s portfolio. At the same time, the treasurer’s office was being solicited by First National Community Bank to utilize their relationship with WesBanco to manage a portion of its funds. The board subsequently urged me, as treasurer, to direct a limited amount of funds to WesBanco, which I did.”

Although the board authorized Barborak to enter into negotiations with the bank to invest county funds through WesBanco, Hoppel questions whether they “urged” him to do so, believing they acted based on his recommendation. He also questioned whether the board was advised of the investment interest problem, as Barborak has suggested.

Bolon has said there may be more than two illegal investments because those were the only ones she was able to identify due to lack of documentation that should have been on file in the treasurer’s office.

Barborak has said he was unaware of the two illegal investments, saying neither the bank or WesBanco provided him with details about specific investments. Barborak also said he became aware of the accounting problem in 2010 and tried to straighten it out but was unable to before leaving office on Dec. 31, even advising the state auditor’s office when examiners were in town performing routine annual audits.

The management letter that accompanied the 2010 county audit referred to the investment income discrepancy, and the state auditor’s office recommended how the interest and investment fees should be reported so that “the county properly posts their funds.” There was no mention of the problem in the 2011 county audit.

The auditor’s office was asked for comment about the investment controversy, and spokeswoman Brittany Halpin noted the 2012 county audit is currently underway and they are unable to comment on active audits.

Meanwhile, GOP Chairman Johnson has filed a public records request with Bolon, seeking copies of investment records and emails. Barborak is a Democrat, as is Bolon, while the three commissioners are Republicans.

Johnson has also called for an independent investigation into the controversy.