County board crisis

Thief identified as county board votes to table audit


Photo by Miles Plueger

The Eau Claire County board moved to table an audit of the Department of Human Services on Tuesday, Oct. 6.

“This whole affair is an attempt to harass and bully the Department of Human Services,” Nick Smiar, chairperson of the Eau Claire County Board, said. 

On Tuesday, Oct. 6, the County Board moved to table the audit proposed toward the Department of Human Services, effectively killing it, Smiar said. 

The vote was 22-7 in favor of tabling the audit while a criminal investigation of a former employee of the DHS is carried out.

Smiar said it began when two County Board supervisors, Steve Chilson and Mark Beckfield, went to County Sheriff Ron Cramer to request that the DHS be investigated for its financial practices. 

They said they had a double digit number of supervisors’ support, but not the majority. Cramer launched an investigation without notice to the rest of the board.

On August 11, the two supervisors pushed a resolution for a forensic audit of the DHS, but it was reported to the press first before going to the board, which created a litany of miscommunications, Smiar said. 

“The public really has not had a clear explanation of what’s going on,” Smiar said.

After a series of movements and amendments, the discussion for who would pay for the audit began, Smiar said. The county has what is called a “contingency fund,” that pays for things like if the snowplow budget is exceeded or for an audit, Smiar said. 

The fund at the time had $260,000 dollars. The proposed audit would cost up to $100,000. 

According to Smiar, a motion was made to postpone the vote on the resolution of the audit to the meeting on Oct. 6. After the postponement meeting, supervisor Gerald Wilke had a meeting with Sheriff Cramer. This resulted in Cramer incurring the cost of the audit, which meant the discussion of the audit itself and the investigation were out of the board’s hands. 

“It went through a different route than normal legislation would go through,” Kathryn Schauff, county administrator, said. 

Schauff said it usually begins at the committee level, they put a resolution forward and then they move it to the board for final consideration.

The criminal complaint from Beckfield and Chilson that was filed by the District Attorney identified the thief as Zer Yang Xiong, otherwise known as Zer Smith. Smith has since legally changed her name, Beckfield said. 

The report states Smith had spent $21,777.74 using Visa prepaid gift cards that were purchased with county-issued credit cards; 43 in total. She is currently under investigation for four counts of fraudulent writing and five counts of fraudulent use of a credit card. 

The report also states her role in the DHS and SPARK!, which is a program through the DHS for people with memory loss. She was to make purchases for the SPARK! program for at-risk youth. Smith said she would purchase gift cards to use for supplies for the DHS, but also said she used them for personal use.

Beckfield said they reported the request for an investigation to Cramer, before they reported it to the board, because of overspending in the DHS, theft and a lack of transparency. 

From 2017-2019, the board has been $7.5 million over budget and the department has provided no solution to mitigating losses, Beckfield said. In addition, there have been three thefts in the county government in less than 18 months, one of which was Smith.

Smiar said Beckfield and Chilson were ‘rogue supervisors’ that spoke on behalf of the board even though not everyone was aware.

Beckfield said this claim was untrue because several employees approached them with the belief that theft was being covered up.

Smiar said the way this was all handled by the supervisors was unprofessional, had no hard evidence for further suspicious activity and will have serious consequences for the county government. 

“You don’t have a forensic audit unless you have an evidentiary basis,” Smiar said.

Confidence in county government has decreased significantly because people have been unaware of the full story, Smiar said. It has decreased so much, in fact, there has been discussion of a referendum.

Smiar said the DHS has thousands of clients; the audit impacts the clients, provider agencies that serve as contractors for the DHS, their contracts and the services they provide. All 223 staff of DHS will be the hardest hit because of their previously outstanding record.

“Our human services agency has the finest reputation in the state. This is going to damage that and for no good reason,” Smiar said. “There is no missing money.”

Beckfield said the treasurer, DA and Cramer all approve of the audit and Smiar is trying to block the procedure. He said because there has already been a crime committed and with all the overspending on top of it, this is grounds for an audit to see if there is anything else going on. 

“Why are you fighting so hard? What are you trying to hide?” Beckfield said.

Plueger can be reached at [email protected].