That’s the word that best describes the feelings of many Jackson County officials in the wake of the former county clerk’s guilty plea for stealing money from her office.
County Commissioner Don Chinoy said a lot of that frustration comes from how much oversight elected officials can provide to each other.
“The County Mayor or County Commission has no authority over those offices,” Chinoy said. “That is something people have to understand. Those offices are individually elected by the people. So, the County Commission has no authority over them. The County Mayor has no authority over them.”
Amanda Stafford pleaded guilty last week to two counts of theft over $2,500 dollars. She was sentenced to two years probation and ordered to pay $10,000 dollars in restitution.
A Tennessee Comptroller report released the same day showed Stafford stole over $25,000 dollars between May 2018 and December 2019. John Dunn, Communications Director for the Comptroller’s office said local governments often have oversight problems. Chinoy said even though that may be the case, the comptroller’s office has a role in oversight, along with other state and local offices.
“The (audits) I find serious is when actual, physical money is missing and the bookkeeping is all messed up,” Chinoy said. “In that case, the auditors come with findings, and the elected official has to correct what was in the findings, and hopefully it doesn’t happen again. If it does happen again, or it appears to be something that’s systemic, then the auditors turn it over to the District Attorney’s office. The District Attorney then has the option to instigating an investigation. They would have the TBI come in and investigate along with the auditors. They would figure out if something criminal is going on.”
State officials discovered Stafford’s theft when auditors did a surprise cash count in October 2018.
With four out of the last five County Clerk’s having faced similar charges, Chinoy said many residents are frustrated by a lack of punishment. He said one of his most asked questions is about leniency from the justice system.
“There’s a lot of people that have come to me and said, ‘why do they always manage to get a Get Out of Jail Free card?’,” Chinoy said. “That has been mentioned to me. I can’t answer that question. I don’t want to answer that question. I’m not the one that does the negotiations or the pleas. That would have to be the decision that is made by those responsible for that. You have to trust them. Every instance we’ve had in Jackson County, the people have been told to pay it back, and whatever legal issues they have had to deal with. Money has been missing from various offices in Jackson County. That’s frustrating people, but would that matter? I don’t know. Maybe the embarrassment is enough.”
Chinoy said that even though theft issues have been a problem in county offices, he said he believes the investigation process works better now that in the past.
“Most of the times it works,” Chinoy said. “More now than it did 20 or 25 years ago when the good-old-boy system was more prevalent. You have to keep one thing in mind. You are still electing District Attorneys. You’re still electing all those things. But I find more over the last 10 or 15 years, there’s been a lot more responsibility and ‘I don’t care who this is, this is my job, let’s do it’.”
One thing Chinoy said he would like to see is more qualified people holding office. Right now, that’s in the hands of the voters.
“I mean you’re collecting money,” Chinoy said. “That money has to be recorded, it has to be balanced, and it has to be put in the bank on a regular basis. If the state comes and audits them, then you have to turn around and give the state their share. Most of what’s probably collected in that office is the state’s share, not the county’s share. You have to make sure all your i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed. Sometimes you’re electing people that are nice people, friendly, and probably from a big family which helps them get (elected). But they don’t have the capabilities to do what needs to be done in these offices because these offices require more than just a ‘good-ole-boy’ to sit there and smile.”
Chief Deputy Brandon Stafford took over after Amanda Stafford’s resignation last month. Chinoy said he is confident in Brandon Stafford handling the office until the August 6 election, when a new County Clerk will be elected.
“It was turned over to Brandon, and I don’t believe Brandon did anything wrong,” Chinoy said. “I believe he had no knowledge of it.”
Early voting for the August election in Jackson County begins July 17.