UPFRONT FEATURE


WELFARE CHIEF UNDER SCRUTINY


For the second time in two years, a Humboldt County grand jury is investigating Social Services Director John Frank for alleged financial irregularities, this time regarding travel reimbursements.

Information regarding the possible misuse of public property by a private fraternal organization was also turned over to the panel.

County records show that Frank travelled to UC Davis for a two-day training session in early January and was reimbursed $32 per day for meals that were provided by the conference.

In a telephone interview March 23, Frank said that he travelled to Davis, became ill and did not attend the conference where meals were served.

The government pays $57,000 a year to UC Davis to provide 21 days of training. Eight of the 21 days -- four sessions of two days each -- are specifically for welfare directors training. Travel records show that Frank attended just two of the last nine training sessions from 1996 through January 1998. (Two of those sessions were missed in 1997 because Frank was on medical leave.)

Those travel records and others show that one or more meals on three separate occasions were reimbursed by the county but were actually provided by the conference or meeting attended by Frank.

Frank said although he signs his travel reimbursement papers, they are prepared by a staff member.

According to District Attorney Terry Farmer, if an employee knowingly charges for meals that are provided, that would be "double dipping" and potentially a criminal matter.

Karen Suikor, assistant county administrative officer, said that there will be a review of travel reimbursement procedures with all department heads.

The grand jury is also looking into the allegation that in late February or early March 1997 Frank invited members of his Elks Lodge into the welfare department's administrative offices over a weekend to use desks and telephones.

Elliott Smart, a 20-year program manager for Humboldt County Social Services who now works for Plumas County, came to the office that weekend to check on his own workers who were training on a new computer system and made the discovery, which he said was "highly unusual."

"When I confronted him (Frank), I was told they were doing fund-raising for the (county) children's shelter," he said in a telephone interview.

Frank said the Elks were "soliciting volunteers for programs that serve the needs of dependent children of the court" and it was legitimate county business.

But not according to the CAO's office.

"We have met with Mr. Frank and he now knows it is inappropriate," Suikor said.

The Journal first reported in May 1997 that Frank used proceeds from two statewide conferences held in Eureka in 1990 and 1994 to purchase office furniture for himself and to set up a trust fund for the children's shelter. Management of the fund, named after his father, was later transferred to the Elks Club, where Frank serves as president.

The conferences -- both annual meetings of the California Welfare Directors Association -- were organized by Social Services Department staff.

The CWDA demanded that all the money -- $25,000 -- be returned to its organization. Frank refused.

The 1996-97 Grand Jury, which investigated the transactions, recommended that the county supervisors take action to retrieve the funds. But they have declined to do so, saying there was never a written contract between the county and the CWDA.

County Administrative Officer John Murray said performance evaluations were recently completed for all non-elected department heads, including Frank, as recommended by the previous grand jury.


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