By Paul Brennan | Iowa Watchdog
DES MOINES, Iowa — The way they tell it at Judy’s Country Curl, Brenda Simmons was nice enough, but she hadn’t done much in her 22 years as city clerk of Menlo, Iowa.
The Country Curl crowd couldn’t have known how wrong they were. From 2001 through 2013, Simmons spent $82,893.51 of the taxpayer’s money padding her salary and adding her husband to her town-funded health insurance coverage, according to a new report from the Iowa State Auditor’s Office.
Simmons may face criminal charges for her actions. The auditor’s office sent copies of its report to the Guthrie County Attorney’s Office, the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation and the State Attorney General’s Office.
Simmons resigned her post in this rural Guthrie County community of 350 residents May 1, 2013, after having misled former Mayor Doug O’Brien about the amount she was paying for her insurance.
“I’m shocked to hear this,” Judy Murphy, owner of Judy’s Country Curl, said after Iowa Watchdog told her what the state auditor found. “People knew there was some sort of problem and that’s why they got rid of Brenda, but we all thought it was some little thing.”
Menlo has no newspaper, so most of the local news is passed by word of mouth, most of it passing through Judy’s Country Curl, the town’s beauty parlor. Simmons was thought of as a lackluster town employee, but not a lawbreaker, Murphy, who has lived in Menlo for 50 or her 70 years, said.
“She never seemed to do much work,” Murphy said. “She never applied for grants that really could have helped the town. She didn’t set a high standard for herself. But she’s a friendly enough person, and nobody ever thought she was up to something.”
Menlo officials were entirely less forthcoming than Murphy. Menlo has no comment on the auditor’s report, according to a person who called herself Evelyn answering the phone at Menlo City Hall.
Evelyn referred all questions to the Guthrie County Attorney Mary Benton.
Benton is out of the office this week and not available for comment, her secretary told Iowa Watchdog.
Messages seeking comment from Menlo Mayor Chris Eddy and several members of the City Council have not been returned.
“No way am I talking about this,” O’Brien, the former mayor, told Iowa Watchdog.
O’Brien and the council called on the auditor’s office to examine the city’s books after Simmons resigned. The state audit examined records for only 12 of Simmons’ years in office.
The auditor found Simmons had 10 times awarded herself with two paychecks for the same pay period. Twice she issued two paychecks in the same pay period to former city maintenance employee John Freeman.
In 2006, when the City Council granted her a 3 percent pay raise, Simmons, in charge of the city’s payroll, boosted her salary by 17 percent. The pay raise came with a commensurate payment from the city on her behalf to the Iowa Public Employee Retirement System, Social Security and Medicare accounts.
In 2005 Simmons added her husband to her health insurance policy without telling city officials by simply increasing the amount the city was paying its insurance company by enough to cover both the city’s contribution and the premium she should have been paying, according to audit findings.
Deputy State Auditor Tami Kusian said her investigators see this sort of fraud in many small communities in Iowa.
“There’s usually just a city clerk handling everything and that’s it,” Kusian told Iowa Watchdog. “The mayor and city council aren’t providing oversight that would prevent problems like this from happening. That was the situation in Menlo. In an environment like that, it doesn’t take long for a person to figure out no one is checking on what they are doing.”
Murphy said city officials should be held accountable for the lack of oversight.
“Somebody should have been taking responsibility for the past 20 years and checking the books,” she said “Even at my church, where everyone trusts everyone else, there are always two people checking the accounts to make sure everything is right.
“I don’t what the City Council has been so busy doing that no one can spare a moment to look the books.”
Contact Paul Brennan at firstname.lastname@example.org