The preliminary audit of purchasing-card use hit Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale’s office like Hurricane Katrina. While the administration deals with the clean-up, there is another storm forming. The dikes are already weak; can they hold for another barrage?
Let’s remember the p-card audit is the second of three audits of financial problems; we still have an examination of the hospitality fund to go. The focus of the p-cards had been individual misuse, but the issues are spread around among current and former members of the administration. (Let’s not follow the red herring here. Even if they find receipts it doesn’t matter. The issue is the spending in the first place. If you spend $300 on dinner at the Palm and have a receipt, does that make it OK?)
The hospitality fund was the mayor’s bright idea. He took and disbursed money on liquor and entertainments. Taking contributions, secreting them in a separate account, and by-passing the general fund and official disbursement is the definition of a slush fund. Citizen (Lewis) Cosby, the retired auditor who raised questions, argues there is no case in which a county official can accept a check (or cash) that it does not, at that instant, become county money subject to normal protocols and accounting.
The p-card audit demonstrates what the NCAA would call “a lack of institutional control.” Statements arrive at the City County building every month listing all the transactions on each card. Department heads should have reviewed each statement and signed off on the entries. They didn’t. This is something most everyone in private business understands. Have you ever been stiffed on an out-of-town parking fee, a fast-food lunch or a cab ride because you didn’t have a receipt? How many times has your department head called you in to explain your expense report? Does anyone think they could carry on like the Knox County Mayor’s Office and not be called on the carpet, reprimanded or fired?
Almost four years ago I wrote a column in the News Sentinel suggesting that Ragsdale had been taking stupid pills. He’s now on an IV drip. It was apparent to me at the time he was demonstrating a serious lack of judgment. It was before Tyler Harber’s e-mail thefts and this string of financial improprieties. The question then had to do with his judgment, given that he had waltzed into office without opposition and was universally liked and respected. There was a real sense that he might be a figure that could translate local success into statewide office. Back then it wasn’t a joke.
But signs of his instability were there. His paranoia and his temper were becoming apparent. He set up a political operation in one of the offices he controlled, installing Harber and political operative Jay Witt. He launched an investigation of Sheriff Tim Hutchison to pre-empt his possibly running for county mayor. He and Arms and Harber set up a website to launch vicious personal attacks against state Rep. Jamie Woodson when she ran for the state Senate. They viewed her as a potential opponent down the road, either for county mayor or when Ragsdale ran for governor. Such ideas can only come from an unstable mind, surrounded by sycophants who enable him.
But no one wanted to listen back then. He coasted to reelection, and the lack of any sort of scrutiny emboldened him. These audits just confirm and enlarge on an attitude of invincibility and the purposeful use of his office to advance his political agenda. The parallels to former UT President John Shumaker are eerie. Some of us raised questions long before audits revealed the depths of his arrogance and stupidity.
Ragsdale began by attacking his imagined enemies. He soon created some real ones. The façade began to crumble and the ugliness behind it is coming into public view.
It’s time for him to go. The real question is whether the people who have charge of our public institutions will do their duty and rid us of this cancer on county government.