CLAYTON COUNTY, Ga. - Channel 2 Action News has learned that the city of Forest Park forced its longtime finance director to resign amid a theft and mismanagement investigation.
Michael Blandenburg, who was hired in 2004, resigned in lieu of termination on Feb. 26, according to records obtained through an open records request. Channel 2 investigative reporter Nicole Carr filed the request for Blandenburg’s personnel file following a tip from someone close to City Hall.
In a termination letter dated Feb. 23, newly hired City Manager Angela Redding informed Blandenburg that the firing was related to a number of issues, including the lack of ability to explain amounts paid to vendors, lack of ability to answer inquiries from city leaders concerning finances and incidents of theft of funds and fraud resulting from inadequate financial controls.
“Your latest display of poor performance was with regard to the preparation of an RFP for a Forensic Audit,” Redding wrote, noting she was assured by Blandenburg that the RFP was ready for advertisement.
“However when I reviewed the RFP I noticed that it referenced the name of another city other than Forest Park several times throughout the document.”
Redding described “a level of carelessness that the City and its citizens cannot afford to tolerate in a Finance Director.”
Redding offered to spare Blandenburg embarrassment by allowing him to resign.
In a statement to Channel 2 Action News, Redding declined to further discuss Blandenburg’s departure, citing the ongoing internal investigation that includes an upcoming forensics audit of Blandenburg’s work.
Carr waited for City Council members outside City Hall on Friday afternoon. Some were headed into a work session focused on the city’s finances.The biggest question for city leaders is how much money is suspected of being mishandled or stolen from the Finance Department.
“Thousands?” Carr asked Mayor Pro-tem Latresa Wells.
Wells nodded and answered, “Yep.”
“Tens of thousands?” Carr asked.
“I won’t say,” Wells laughed, before turning serious. “I won’t say, but it’s, it’s money, money that the city needs that the city can’t afford to just throw away or have mishandled.”
In January, the city published another request for proposals for a new forensics audit into the Finance Department. It will examine the years 2014 through 2017, the last three years of Blandenburg’s tenure.
Carr was unable to reach Blandenburg, a Carrollton resident, by phone or personal email Friday.
City Councilman Allan Mears called the former finance director a good man, but said he understood Redding’s desire to have another audit completed.
The last one was completed six months ago, and came back clean, according to Mears.
That audit’s RFP process was the one scrutinized by Redding in the termination letter.
“If it goes bad, it will be on her watch. You see what I’m saying?” Mears said.
“So it’s (the audit) a good idea. In any business, big business, you need to know where you’re at when you start.”
RED FLAGS OVER THE YEARS
A closer look at Blandenburg’s personnel file showed a number of red flags over more than a decade, including a reprimand for using city credit cards for unspecified personal use.
That incident was documented in 2004, shortly after Bladenburg’s hiring from the city of Powder Springs, where he also served as the finance director.
“You were informed that your use of the card was in poor judgement,” wrote then-City Manager William Werner. “Under no circumstances should any employee use the City’s credit card for his/her personal expenses.”
In 2014, Blandenburg was placed on a last chance warning by then-City Manager Frank Brandon.
Brandon noted the Finance Department was under investigation with regards to money mismanagement while Blandenburg worked a side accountant job on city time.
Three days later, on Aug. 15, 2014, Blandenburg apologized to Brandon in a letter, promising to improve his performance.
“Regarding my accounting work performed while at work with the City, this has ceased,” Blandenburg wrote. “I pledge to keep any side responsibilities totally separated from the City, and to be committed one hundred percent to the City.”
Fast forward to April 2017, when a memo from interim City Manager Dwayne Hobbs noted two criminal investigations within the Finance Department that resulted in the arrest of one employee.
The file does not further detail that investigation, but requires Blandenburg to tighten up his work schedule, better prepare for meetings -- referred to as “avoiding embarrassing situations” -- and supervise daily cash counts within the department.
Threats by several city managers to terminate Blandenburg were never carried out.
“It was probably something that had been pushed down, down, down by other city managers that needed to be addressed and she was the one that drawed the short straw. See what I’m saying?” Mears said.
On Friday, the results of the criminal investigations noted were unclear, but the Forest Park Police Department confirmed it has no current, open theft investigation.
The city required proposals for a new audit to be submitted by March 21.
“Evidently, they’re not satisfied with what the other audit shows up, so we’ll wait and see what that shows up,” said Mears.
“It’s sad,” said Wells. “ It’s really sad because, a city like Forest Park, we’re thriving and to have our finances be an issue is very important to me and, of course, we want to put out the RFP so we can get to the bottom of it.”
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