CENTER, Mo. | Tracey Ray was fired as Center city clerk last year after the mayor and aldermen discovered that she had filed to failed mandatory financial statements to the Missouri Department of Revenue for at least three years.
Facing more than $146,000 in fines from the state, the Center Board of Aldermen dismissed Ray on July 3.
Separately, Ray is facing four felonies in Ralls County relating to an alleged exchange of gun fire with Ralls County Sheriff's deputies late on the night of July 2.
The city requested an audit from Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway's office, which has been underway since August and is not expected to be completed until next spring. The auditor's office also has called in the FBI to assist.
But city officials quickly discovered even more financial disparities.
After calling in the auditors and firing Ray, Center found itself in a financial mess. Not only was the city facing fines from the state, the city did not have access to taxpayer bank accounts because Ray was the only authorized person on the accounts. When Mayor Dennis McMillen went to the bank to review accounts, he was denied access.
The Board of Aldermen also learned that the city had no key to access its post office box in Center, and that there were no keys to a closet where key financial records should be stored. The city also could not get mail over the counter from the Postal Service.
It took a resolution from Board of Aldermen to gain access to the bank accounts and the post office box.
In the weeks after Ray's firing first-term Alderman Cristy Browning reviewed city bank accounts, discovering a years' long pattern of alleged siphoning of taxpayer funds. Browning said she uncovered at least five years' worth of payments from the city's general fund and the Special Sewer Fund that have now totaled more than $270,000, Browning said.
Browning found payments to credit card companies, health insurers and even the Audrain County collector's office.
“It is like the bottom falls out of your stomach, and it is still falling out,” Browning said. “On the very first page, I discovered a $6,000 payment to Capital One. I immediately called another alderman and asked if we had ever authorized credit card charges. The answer was no,” she said. “I started to find the credit card payments, the checks, the payments for health insurance. It just kept growing.”
McMillen said the discovery was a gut-punch.
“We have never authorized a credit card for the city and all these charges are a surprise,” said Mayor Dennis McMillen, who is finishing his fourth term as mayor. McMillen is running for a fifth term in the April against a frequent critic, Alderman Tom Bramblett. Management of city finances is expected to be a primary issue, based on social media postings in recent weeks.
The Courier-Post recently reviewed five years of statements for Center's general fund and the Special Sewer Fund. The review confirmed payments almost every month since 2014 for credit cards, health insurance, life insurance and even apparent property taxes.
Dec. 23, 2016: a check for $1,978.54 to Capital One Credit Card Services, signed by Ray.
April 28, 2016: A check for $1,341.80 to the Audrain County Collector, signed by Ray.
April 26, 2016: A check for $1,000 to Citi Mortgage, signed by Ray.
April 26, 2016: A check for $411.71 to Anthem Blue Cross, signed by Ray.
Feb. 23, 2016: A check for $1,094.89 to Capital One Card Services, signed by Ray.
April 22, 2016: A online payment of $11,000 to GM Card Services Aug. 22, 2018: A check for $2,272.69 to Anthem Blue Cross.
July 5, 2017: Online payment to Gm Card Services for $5,486.88
Aug. 29, 2017: Online payment to GM Card Services for $5,245.68
Nov. 22, 2017: Online payment to Capital One Card Service for $14,000.
Dec. 28, 2018: Online payment to Capital One Card Services for $6,206.76
May 24, 2019: Online payment to Capital One for $6,712.24
July 2, 2019: On the day that she was fired, an online payment was posted to Capital One for $13,121.76.
McMillen said that state auditors have been forced to issue subpoenas to gain access to credit card and insurance records, which has helped delay the report back to the city.
Center has taken steps to ensure that no one person had sole access to bank accounts or technology.
Meanwhile, city officials await the results of the state audit. The Missouri Auditor does not have the authority to file criminal charges. It can only refer information to the Attorney General's office.