The Buck Stops Where, Exactly?

Richmond City Hall

by Jon Baliles

The city’s voter registrar is in the news again this week, and not because there is a primary election next week or huge elections both nationally and locally in November. This week, Graham Moomaw reported in the Virginia Mercury that the city’s Human Resource Department conducted a review of the Registrar’s Office polices and recommended an “immediate departmental restructuring” after its internal investigation following stories about alleged credit card misuse and nepotism in the office. Those findings were sent to state and local officials this week, and the Mercury obtained them through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

Last month, Samuel Parker at the Times-Dispatch reported that Keith Balmer, the city’s voter registrar, had racked up almost $70,000 in charges on the city credit card for things like furniture, art, frequent lunches for the entire staff, and more. Some charges, like travel expenses for staff to a convention in Roanoke, seemed to be normal; but others, like nearly $10,000 spent at the fancy furniture store LaDiff seem a bit excessive for a city expense/office funded by taxpayers. In March, they had also reported there had been allegations of nepotism against the Registrar.

This week, Parker at the RTD also reported that Deputy Registrar Jerry Richardson charged nearly $80,000 to her city-issued credit card last year and was also being investigated for nepotism. The city’s Inspector General is looking into the entire mess for any possible further action.

Moomaw’s article in the Mercury details the findings of the city’s Human Resources investigation and also includes a brief summary about the need for reshuffling staff, and a closer look at nepotism allegations (and even includes something called the “Nepotism Tree”). And even though Balmer doesn’t report to City Hall or the Mayor, the city’s own investigation said the Registrar is still subject to city policies.

Moomaw wrote:

Investigators ruled Balmer and Richardson violated two city administrative regulations. One is an anti-nepotism policy meant to prevent preferential treatment for relatives and ensure employees don’t supervise their relatives. The other is a more general ethics policy outlining rules against using public office for personal gain and conduct that inhibits ‘the confidence of the public in the integrity of government.’

Voter Registrars are appointed (or removed) by a three-member Electoral Board in each locality, and neither Richardson nor Balmer are city employees, but the office is funded with city funds and the credit cards are issued by the city. The Registrar’s Office is funded through the city’s budget and will receive $5.2 million this coming year (a slight increase from $4.7 million); the city’s Procurement Department issues the credit cards for the office.

That is relevant because City Hall has been seriously pretending since the story broke a month ago that the Registrar’s Office is completely separate from the city (but it’s not). Note that Moomaw’s story pointed out that the city’s Human Resources Department did the initial internal investigation. Also, these issues were only investigated after they arose in the media, not through internal due diligence. The city oversees (or is supposed to oversee) the credit card usage but the city only cut the credit cards off after the initial story about them broke on May 16.

And even though the investigation in Moomaw’s article was complete almost a month ago, city officials didn’t send the “notice of investigative findings” to state and local election officials until this week — after Moomaw’s FOIA request and the report’s findings were about to become public. The HR department would never send that report anywhere without the approval of the Mayor and CAO.

Jon Baliles is a former Richmond city councilman. This column has been republished with permission from his blog RVA 5×5.

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One response to “The Buck Stops Where, Exactly?”

  1. Chip Gibson Avatar
    Chip Gibson

    Send in Fani Willis and her stud muffin. They can clear this all up.

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