Mercer County Treasurer Controversy Continues

Kathleen Conway/Correspondent

Aledo - The old adage about the month of March, "In like a lamb, out like a lion" described the Aug. 5, 2014, Mercer County Board meeting. It began with a "business as usual" financial report from Deputy Treasurer Bev Lower. It ended, however, with a heated exchange among Board members regarding the Treasurer's post to be filled as a result of Mike Bertelsen's July 25, 2014, resignation.

In Bertelsen's partial plea agreement that was accepted in Rock Island County Court on July 28, 2014, Bertelsen pled guilty to two felony charges, Theft and Official Misconduct. Special Prosecutor Michael Vujovich dismissed the remaining counts pertaining to funds stolen from the Mercer County E911 fund. Additionally, the theft charge of $800 from the Mercer County Republican Central Committee was dismissed. The plea agreement required Bertelsen's immediate resignation as Mercer County Treasurer and a restitution payment of $13,800. Bertelsen submitted a $13,800 check to Judge Frank R. Fuhr, who then forwarded the check to Mercer County Circuit Clerk Jeff Benson. The Mercer County Board will receive $13,000, and the Mercer County Republican Central Committee will receive the balance of $800.

The Mercer County Board hired McGladrey to perform a forensic audit of the E911 Fund to which Bertelsen had sole access and authorization. The audit covered transactions from Dec. 26, 2001, through July 31, 2012, and identified $13,000 that were misappropriated by Bertelsen as follows: $5,000 on Feb. 10, 2004; $4,000 on Dec. 14, 2004; and $4,000 on July 9, 2009. Based on the limited scope of the contract issued by the Mercer County Board, McGladrey did not audit additional accounts. Bertelsen had been the Mercer County Treasurer since 1994.

At the Aug. 5, 2014, Mercer County Board meeting Ted Pappas, Finance Committee Chair, presented States Attorney Greg McHugh's recommendation to investigate additional accounts to which Bertelsen had sole access. Based on McGladrey's recommendations, safeguards have been implemented to address the problem of sole access and authorization to Mercer County funds.

Both Republican and Democrat Board members agreed on the need for providing a "clean slate" to the new treasurer, who will be elected in November. Treasurer candidate Sandy Bull (R) stated that having a "clean slate" was important, and candidate Bev Lower (D) agreed. The meaning of "clean slate" was questioned and discussed among the Board members and public in attendance.

Referring to Lower's statement that 51 of the 56 McGladrey recommendations have been implemented, Ken Rakers, Aledo, a retired auditor of the State of Illinois, said "She's said that for the last 12 months she's done what the auditors recommended. There's a clean slate starting for the new person."

Rakers questioned the feasibility of conducting an additional investigation of funds to which Bertelsen had sole access. "Unless you have some hope for recovering money, if there was any stolen and how much was stolen, what's the cost/benefit ratio of doing this additional (investigation)?" How much money was there, "hundreds or thousands of dollars, and what is the possibility of getting money back if it was found to be stolen?" he asked. He, also, brought up the issues of the statute of limitations and the potential for additional charges, since Bertelsen pled guilty to felony Theft and Official Misconduct.

States Attorney McHugh stated that if additional monies were missing, new charges could be filed. An extension of the statue of limitations exists for felonies committed by government officials. Ultimately, Pappas said that he would contact McGladrey to determine the cost of additional investigation and present that information to the Board members for their consideration.

Rakers recommended that the auditors be changed every three to four years. Referring to the Dixon, treasurer, Rita Crundwell, who stole $53.7 million over 22 years, Rakers stated, "In Dixon she had the auditors' trust and buffaloed them. The auditors didn't catch this (Bertelsen's theft). The Republican party found this, not an auditor." Pappas agreed, "Sarbanes-Oxley (Act of 2002), after the Enron problem, recommended to change auditors every five years."

Other agenda items included the change of venue for voting in several precincts in the November, 2014, election. County Clerk/Recorder Phyllis Bewley informed the Board that due to the loss of the polling station at the old fire station, which is now the police station, several polling stations will be consolidated. Precincts 1 through 5 will have only one polling place at the Mercer County VFW Post 1571, Aledo. Bewley noted the improvement to seniors because the VFW is handicap accessible. After receiving Board approval, Bewley will advertise the changes as required by law.

The Senior Center ownership was approved by the Board to be transferred to the City of Aledo. George Howard said that his biggest concern was that the Senior Center continue to be promoted and used by all Mercer County seniors and not just Aledo residents. Howard said that this concern was addressed and is part of the agreement with the City of Aledo.

The reappointment of Larry Streeter to the Mercer County Board of Review was unanimously approved.

Ron McNall, Mercer County Coroner, previously announced his retirement after 24 years of service. The Board will discuss a plan to acknowledge McNall's service to Mercer County and will present the plans in the future.

The final agenda item was "Announce Mike Bertelsen resignation and Plan for Filling Treasurer Position." Board Chair Jeff McWhorter stated that the Bertelsen resignation was received. "It's been long coming. We would have liked to have had it much earlier, but at least we've got it. . . . As statute provides, I have 60 days to fill this position. I plan on talking to some people about candidates. . . . The Republican committee has the right to send a name to me. I'll take that name under consideration then. I plan to bring a name to the next Board meeting," said Board Chair McWhorter.

On Friday Aug. 1, 2014, Mercer County Republican Party Chairman Brian Anseeuw publically announced that their nomination for the Treasurer vacancy was Sandy Bull. Bull is the current Aledo City Treasurer and has 37 years experience in the banking industry. At Tuesday's Board meeting, Republican county board members expressed their concern that Sandy Bull's appointment was delayed. McWhorter said, "I suggest you present a name of someone who is not running for office."

Dr. Anseeuw stated that Deputy Treasurer Bev Lower was, also, a Treasurer candidate. In the past, he said, the sheriff position vacated by Tom Thompson (D) was immediately filled. McWhorter said that the Sheriff position was not filled with a candidate for Sheriff. McWhorter stated that if no appointment were made to the Treasurer position for 60 days, the savings in salary would be approximately $8,000.

The civil discourse continued to deteriorate as discussion shifted from the Treasurer appointment to the topic of revenue decline at the Mercer County jail with no equitable adjustment to the Mercer County Sheriff's budget.

With the close of the Board meeting, public comments were heard. Barb Chiles asked Ms. Bewley about training for election judges. Bewley stated that all judges will be trained to ensure a smooth transition to the new VFW polling place. Jason Soseman posed the question as to the need for a public hearing regarding the Senior Center transfer of ownership from Mercer County to the City of Aledo. States Attorney McHugh stated that no statute existed that made public discussion necessary.

The next Mercer County Board meeting will be held at the Mercer County Courthouse on Tues., Sept. 2, 2014. The Finance Committee meeting begins at 5:30 p.m., and the General Board meeting begins at 7 p.m. Both meetings are open to the public. There were approximately 40 members of the public present at the Aug. 5 meeting.