SOMERSET — A vote by Somerset City Council members authorizing a lawsuit against state Auditor Adam Edelen raises concerns that the city is trying to shut down a look at its books, Edelen said Wednesday.
At Mayor Eddie Girdler's request, the council voted 9-3 at Monday's meeting to let the city seek a court judgment on whether Edelen's office has the authority to conduct a special examination of city finances and other issues.
Edelen said in a news release he was "deeply concerned" some officials want to hamstring his office, which has been doing an audit in Somerset for months. He questioned the motive.
"I've long said that if you haven't done anything wrong, you shouldn't have anything to hide," Edelen said.
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However, Lexington attorney Charles D. Cole, who represents the city, said its most recent audit by an independent accounting firm found no financial red flags and showed taxpayer money was being spent "wisely with appropriate accountability and transparency."
That shows the state's audit is not necessary, said Carrie Wiese, the city's regular attorney.
"Taxpayers would be paying twice for an audit we already know is clean," Wiese said.
A special examination by the auditor's office is different from the work accounting firms typically do for cities, however, looking at a range of issues other than whether accounts balance.
Wiese said Girdler and some other city officials think that the state audit is rooted in politics and that the real purpose is to try to shut down a city program that sells gas directly to the public in competition with private retailers.
Many residents like the station because they think it has helped drive down gas costs in town, but it has been controversial, with state Sen. Chris Girdler, a Somerset Republican, and others arguing it is an improper government interference with free enterprise.
Edelen flatly denied that the effort by his office to dig into the city's finances had anything to do with the city's gas sales.
Auditors may ask questions about the sales as part of their look at the city's financial activity, internal controls and procedures, but the goal is to make sure taxpayer money is being spent wisely and with appropriate accountability, Edelen said.
"We aren't a regulatory agency, and my office isn't working to prevent the city from selling gasoline," he said.
John Ricky Minton, one of the three council members who voted against the potential lawsuit, has been a strong supporter of the gas sales. He said he thinks the exam is not an attempt to shut down the city's station.
Minton said he spoke with field auditors last week. They asked questions about a number of issues — including bidding, hiring and hundreds of thousands of dollars for tree-trimming work — but nothing about the gas station, Minton said.
Girdler linked the request to sue with gas sales as a way to get council members on board, Minton said.
Edelen's office began looking at Somerset's books last fall.
The state auditor's office has a duty under state law to conduct annual audits of a number of local-government offices such as sheriffs, county clerks and fiscal courts.
The office does not conduct similar annual audits of cities, but it does do audits and special exams involving cities.
That happens sometimes based on allegations the office has received.
In 2013, for instance, auditors did a special exam in Barbourville at the request of five city council members concerned about potential improprieties.
The city council ousted Mayor David Thompson after the audit found a number of hiring, bidding and financial problems.
The auditor's office has performed work in 21 cities since 1999, said Stephenie Hoelscher, spokeswoman for Edelen's office.
In the case of Somerset, Edelen's office heard concerns about financial activities and other issues, said Hoelscher, who said she could not be more specific at this point.
Edelen said Somerset officials had cooperated well with the special exam for months before the city council voted to approve suing him, a move he called perplexing.
Wiese said that after the audit by the accounting firm showed there was no misuse of funds in the city, officials got a bit weary of continuing to supply documents to state auditors.
"It's starting to get a little cumbersome," Wiese said.
And Cole, the city's outside counsel, said the state audit expanded from an initial examination of the city's gas sales into a much broader management audit that includes questions about job postings and pay for workers.
Cole said Edelen's office has no legal authority to audit a city as it is trying to do in Somerset.
However, Robert E. McBeath, the attorney for Edelen's office, told Cole in a letter that the office does have authority to audit Somerset.
And McBeath said Edelen's office made clear to Somerset officials early on that the examination would not be limited to city gas sales.
McBeath said that after months, the claim that Edelen's office has no authority to do the audit raises a question about what the city or the mayor wants to keep the auditor from discovering.