July 29, 2021 By Kat Crockett
The Sonoita Elgin Fire Board (SEFD) has received reports stemming from a series of investigations initiated over the past several months. In January 2021, the Sonoita Elgin Fire Board (SEFD) Board terminated the employment of Chief DeWolf for misconduct because he increased his salary by $300 per week without Board approval. The County’s Sheriff’s office is now investigating DeWolf’s misconduct for possible criminal or civil action. That investigation is currently on-going.
The SEFD’s former Administrative Assistant, Katie Goodwin, who resigned in April 2021, had alleged that she was bullied by SEFD Board Chair Chris Johnson, and that Johnson implied her employment was conditional upon her signing a management letter for the special audit. The investigation into Goodwin’s allegations, conducted by Green and Baker LTD Law Firm, concluded that Goodwin and Johnson had a tense discussion at a meeting on March 10 where Goodwin started talking over Johnson and, according to Board member Annette Dorney, “they were going at each other pretty good.” The purpose of the meeting was to obtain Goodwin’s verification of information contained in a letter to satisfy the Walker & Armstrong auditors’ demands to complete the final audit report to support an insurance claim on DeWolf’s overpayments. The investigator concluded that the meeting was tense and discourteous, but it did not rise to bullying by Johnson. Goodwin’s allegation that her employment was conditional upon her signing the management letter for the special audit was also not sustained and it was determined that it was Goodwin and not Johnson who raised the idea that her job might be in jeopardy and people were trying to get rid of her. SEFD Fire Chief Buonaccorsi reprimanded Goodwin on March 22, describing her actions in the meeting as, “unprofessional, argumentative, and discourteous.” He also stated that Goodwin’s inability to respond to Walker & Armstrong demonstrated a level of neglect, inefficiency, or indifference in the execution of her job and commented on the apparent disarray of the files she was responsible for.
In another investigation, by Green & Baker focused on an assessment of how DeWolf was able to obtain the improper benefits and overpayments to which he was not entitled. The SEFD Board requested the investigation to learn what steps, if any, could be taken to prevent any similar occurrences in the future. The report concluded that although Goodwin was not performing her job adequately, it did not appear that she intentionally allowed DeWolf to obtain benefits he was not entitled to. She did play a role in the disarray of documents and records which indirectly resulted in improper benefits. The findings also discussed limitations to the Board’s ability to exercise better oversight on the processing of pay and benefits. The structure of SEFD does not allow it to do so, as the Board does not have the power to bypass the Chief to contact other employees directly. The report concluded Goodwin was not qualified or competent to perform financial tasks and her sloppy performance and uncooperative attitude exacerbated the situation.
On another issue, the report concluded that CPA Vicki Rutter did not intentionally allow any wrongdoing
to occur; however, she failed to verify that DeWolf was entitled to extra pay. Rutter admitted that the Chief told her pretty much what to do and referred to his “authoritarian style.” She stated she did not have a copy of the Chief’s contract and did not ask for any documentation to support his unauthorized salary increase benefits. She also stat- ed that procedures have now changed, and she would never again process payroll or benefits or payment an IGA merely at the direction of the Chief, or the administrative assistant without receiving authorization in writing, stating “it’s not good, good practice to do it the way we were doing it.” The report concluded that as a CPA, Rutter was qualified to perform financial duties, but she engaged in bad practices by not obtaining verification and acting solely on directives from DeWolf and Goodwin. The conclusion from the report states, “the SEFD Board was victimized by DeWolf’s acceptance of pay and benefits to which he was not entitled. The Board can, however, act in the future to take steps to help ensure that such a situation does not repeat itself.” As a result, the Board has already implemented several changes to gain more oversight on financial issues, including payroll.