KINGMAN - A ghost of the county's past raised its ugly head Wednesday night when two Mohave County Treasurer candidates started sniping at each other about their involvement in the cleanup of an investment scandal that rocked the office in 2007.
It started when treasurer candidate Cindy Landa Cox stated that the county needed highly qualified people to run for elected office.
She went on to describe her 30 years of experience as a financial analyst for several large companies, her work with multi-million dollar budgets and her bachelor's degree in accounting and master's degree in business administration. She also told the audience at the Mohave Republican Forum meeting that she taught accounting at
Mohave Community College and the University of Phoenix.
She also worked for the Mohave County Treasurer's Office in 2008.
"I don't say these things to impress or intimidate," Cox said. "I say these things to impress upon you that qualifications, education, commitment and proven work history are vital for positive improvement in the treasurer's office. You deserve a confident leader."
Incumbent Melissa Havatone pointed out that she has 28 years of experience in the Mohave County Treasurer's Office and knows every single job in the office.
"Without that experience, there's no way I would have been able to clean up the mess from the previous administration," she said, referring to an incident involving the treasurer's office in 2007.
In November and December 2007, former Deputy Treasurer Janet Baker and Treasurer Lee Fabrizio invested approximately one-third of the funds the office controls for local schools, fire districts and improvement districts in corporate bonds. The investments included bonds from LehmanBrothers. By September 2008, the bonds had lost around 19 percent of their face value and the district had lost at least $5 million when Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy.
Baker resigned and left the office in July 2008. Fabrizio ran for office again in November 2008 but lost to Havatone.
"My experience says it all. This office is my passion," Havatone said.
She said she has made a number of improvements to the office, including new technology, better customer service, an easier-to-read tax bill and a fraud system that checks all of the checks that are sent out by the different county departments.
She said her office was so efficient that employees were looking for work some days.
If there were employees looking for work, then why did the department just hire two new employees? Cox asked. If she is elected and employees are looking for work, she would either find them something to do or send them home.
Communication is the key, she said. She would communicate with all of the department heads and the public to find out how to serve them best. She would even send out notices so the public would know when to expect their tax bills.
Havatone pointed out that elected officials, such as the county treasurer, were not invited to department head meetings.
She also said she created a database to identify all bills that were returned to the office by mail and was following up to find out why those bills were returned.
In many cases, a property was sold but the deed was never recorded. So the bills go out to the old property owner, she said. Her office is working with the county assessor and recorder's offices to fix that problem.
When the two women were asked about rumors concerning their work history, neither one of them really wanted to discuss it.
Havatone said the hostile workplace grievance she filed against Baker was in the past and she didn't want to talk about it.
Cox said she was not fired from Kingman Regional Medical Center, contrary to circulating rumors. She left to run for office.
She also pointed out that it was Havatone who let her go from her job at the treasurer's office in 2008.
Cox said she was hired shortly after the investment debacle was revealed. She stepped into the role of deputy treasurer after Baker left in July 2008 and was able to raise morale as well as start the process of sorting the investment mess out.
She was just making progress when Havatone was elected Treasurer in November 2008 and let her go, saying the two had different management styles.
Havatone asked why Cox didn't do anything to prevent the loss of more than $5 million in corporate bonds when she was working as the deputy treasurer. The district would have been hit a lot harder if Havatone hadn't done something, she said.
Cox responded that all of those changes happened before she took over as deputy treasurer. She was still trying to sort out the mess when Havatone let her go.
"I didn't buy the bonds," she said.
Cox pointed out that the office was spending more than $160,000 for an outside firm to handle the county's investments. She said she has the experience to handle those types of investments and would bring that job back into the office where the public would have more control over how those funds would be invested.
Havatone countered that it wasn't her decision to go with an outside firm.
After the 2008 investment debacle, the Board of Supervisors ordered an audit of the treasurer's accounts and found that two Merrill Lynch investment brokers had earned more than $300,000 in commissions on the bonds it sold to the county, she said. The Board then created an advisory committee to locate a new investment broker to handle the funds.
The funds are now invested in such a way that if something like Lehman Brothers happens again, the county won't have to go to court to get its money back, Havatone said.
When the two candidates were asked how they would maximize the county's returns on investments, Havatone replied that would happen when the economy turned around.
"Right now we're so conservative, we squeak," she said.
Cox said safeguarding the county's investments should be the No.1 priority right now.
The county should get rid of the outside investment firm and bring those investments back under control of the County Investment Oversight Committee and the community.