Auditors with the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources were quick to point out that its wetlands chief, Ron Ferrell, should have known better than to have taken perks from consultants who do business with the agency.
But what about the consultant who gave Ferrell most of the perks?
According to the audit, that consultant is Harlan Britt, who was the agency's deputy director over the Division of Water Quality until he retired in 1997. Britt now works for Kimley-Horn and Associates, and from 2001 to 2003, Ferrell told auditors that Britt provided Ferrell two golf outings, a hockey ticket and two dinners.
Britt, who worked for the state for 28 years, disputed the number of perks offered. He said he provided one golf outing and two meals, and a letter from the company's attorney to auditors makes the same assertion. All told, they said Ferrell received about $80 worth of perks.
Britt couldn't recall receiving a perk from a contractor when he worked for the state, but he said it was normal for his company occasionally to pick up a meal or greens fee. He said he never saw it becoming an issue for Ferrell.
Britt added that sometimes Ferrell would pick up the tab.
"We're friends," Britt said. "That's what friends do."
Kimley-Horn has done wetlands-related work for the department, Britt said. But he didn't think Ferrell played a role in awarding contracts to the company.
Britt isn't the only former agency official to pick up the tab for Ferrell, the audit said. Bill Kreutzberger of CH2MHill, a former environmental regional supervisor, bought Ferrell lunch May 8, 2002.
The department is researching its contracts to see whether Ferrell got the perks while in a position to award state business. State law makes it a misdemeanor offense for contractors to offer gifts or favors to state officials who award them contracts or oversee those contracts. State officials also face a misdemeanor for accepting the gifts or favors.
Ferrell abruptly retired late last week just before the department released an audit reviewing an $893,000 creek buffer contract awarded to Greene Environmental Services, a company in state and federal investigations over a prison land sale in Greene County.
The audit, released Monday, also said that Ferrell suggested one of his employees use a beach house offered by one of Greene's founders. She took advantage of the offer, which the audit said was made after the contract was awarded.
With budget season upon us, Gov. Mike Easley has issued a stern warning to lawmakers: Pay no attention to the relative rosiness of this year's numbers.
With this month's individual tax returns nearly all tallied, Easley said Tuesday he is confident that the state will end the year with a small surplus. But in a letter to lawmakers last week, the governor urged them not to get any ideas.
"It will be tempting for some to return to times when spending accelerated far faster than the economy," Easley wrote. "Still others may want to run up our outstanding debt far beyond our ability to pay."
Easley also said he will propose no new taxes in his budget and will keep spending increases below the cap he proposed last year.
By staff writers Dan Kane and Amy Gardner. Kane can be reached at 829-4861 or firstname.lastname@example.org.