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July 23, 2013

Good Hope officials looking into financial irregularities (VIDEO)

Purchase of gift cards to various stores at center of investigation

GOOD HOPE — With a cheerful tone, Good Hope’s city council discussed a back-to-school bash, upcoming grants and the city Christmas parade, but didn’t mention financial irregularities that came to light prior to the recent resignation of its city clerk.

Lisa Dahlke resigned on Wednesday, July 17, following a three-hour executive session that initially excluded Mayor Corey Harbison, who said his attendance would be a conflict of interest. Harbison said he became aware of a possible misuse of city funds July 10, but he declined to comment further on advice of City Attorney Rita Nicholas to “avoid hindrance of a pending investigation.”

When Dahlke was asked last Thursday by The Times the  reason behind her resignation, she said, “Because of our affair, that was the main reason.” Dahlke said she was referring to the  mayor.

“Due to the state ethics commission being involved in possible criminal acts by the city clerk, I’m not going to comment at this time,” Harbison said.

Financial records obtained by The Cullman Times Monday revealed numerous gift card purchases at the city’s expense through its Lowe’s account, including Belk ($600), T. J. Maxx ($400), Rue 21 ($100), Bath and Body Works ($120), Ruby Tuesday’s ($50), Cracker Barrel ($50), Outback Steakhouse ($25) and Shell ($50), totaling $1,395 from January to mid-March. Dahlke’s name was signed to the purchases. The records request included e-mails and phone and financial records dating back two years.

“My policy is to follow up on anything that is brought to my attention,” Harbison said.

Harbison said the city clerk is responsible for paying city bills and that he often ‘doesn’t see payments even though his name is stamped on them.’ The city council reviews financial statements monthly.  

“I’ve learned a lot of lessons through this,” Harbison said.

The pending investigation was not discussed at the council’s meeting Monday. Only after the meeting adjourned did Harbison mention the city’s search for a new clerk as Dahlke held the position for three years.

After The Times filed a request Friday for city financial phone and e-mail records through the state’s open records law, Nicholas provided a recent Lowe’s bill and copies of three months of receipts accessed July 10. Harbison declined to comment about the gift card purchases on the Lowe’s charge account. He said he, the city clerk, council members and other city employees are authorized to use to the Lowe’s account to make purchases.

Nicholas said it would be premature to say if the city was or would be reviewing other financial receipts and statements pending the investigation. She also declined to comment on whether the city was pursuing reimbursement for any potentially misused funds.

“We just don’t have all the facts right now,” she said. “Once we finish our investigation we plan to release a statement on the matter.”

Harbison said any information regarding the financial investigation would be sent to the state’s ethics commission.

Nicholas said there was no pending litigation against the city that she was aware of following Dahlke’s resignation.

Lauren Estes can be reached laurene@cullmantimes.com or 256-734-2131, ext. 137. Tiffeny Owens can be reached at towens@cullmantimes.com or 256-734-2131, ext. 135.

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