Amid allegations, Pact 4 Executive Board moves for firing director

WILLMAR -- The executive board of the Pact 4 Families Collaborative has voted to begin the process of firing Executive Director Toni Braness. The board took the action Tuesday afternoon after receiving a report from a state auditor's investigatio...

WILLMAR -- The executive board of the Pact 4 Families Collaborative has voted to begin the process of firing Executive Director Toni Braness.

The board took the action Tuesday afternoon after receiving a report from a state auditor's investigation into gift card use and meal reimbursements at the agency.

Braness will receive an outline of the allegations against her and have an opportunity to meet with two board members and give her side of the story later this week. The board will meet at 3:30 p.m. Oct. 10 to hear a report about that meeting and consider its next step, which could be termination.

Kandiyohi County Attorney Boyd Beccue said later Tuesday that a criminal complaint will be filed soon, most likely by the end of the week. However, he said he wouldn't discuss the details of the complaint until it has been signed by a judge and becomes public information.

After meeting with state auditors several weeks ago, he referred the matter to the Willmar Police Department for further investigation, Beccue said. The investigation produced a "lengthy file" that is under review in his office, he added.


In a brief telephone interview Tuesday afternoon, Braness said she was unaware of the board meeting or its outcome. She had known there was an investigation but did not know any specifics, she said.

Braness has been on medical leave since late July and is still receiving her regular salary.

"There's many people that handle gift cards. ... They're not in only one person's hands," she said. "I did nothing wrong."

In a later conversation, Braness said she did not want to comment about the situation or any allegations against her.

Auditor's report

Pact 4 is a joint powers agreement between Kandiyohi, Meeker, Renville and Yellow Medicine counties. Its purpose is to provide services for families and for children with mental health issues.

Pact 4 has received several large state and federal grants to help pay for its programs. Since it receives public grants, the State Auditor's Office conducts its annual financial audit.

The audit of Pact 4's financial statements uncovered no problems with its handling of federal grants.


The auditor's report alleges that the Pact 4 gift card and gift certificate program was not properly managed. The program provides temporary assistance to individuals and compensates volunteers or those hired to review grants. Gift cards are also used to purchase supplies or to pay for employee meals while traveling.

The report questions adherence to meal reimbursement policies and notes the apparent existence of two methamphetamine advisory committees, one operated by an employee and one operated by Braness.

However, the report seems to indicate the most problems with gift cards.

Once an application was approved, gift cards or certificates were taken from a locked drawer by either the office manager or the director and were issued to the employee who worked with the family receiving assistance, according to the report.

Auditor Nancy Bode listed several areas of concern when she discussed the public version of the auditor's investigation with the board on Tuesday. A "non-public" investigative report was supplied to the Kandiyohi County Attorney's office in August, she said.

It appears that policies were followed in some cases but not in others, Bode said.

Policies need to be clear, and "the rules have to apply to everyone" with no management override allowed, she said. She suggested having two people sign off when gift cards are issued.

Interim Director Debb Sheehan said the staff and board are already working on new policies.


From January 2005 through June 2006, 15 of 31 applications for temporary assistance were found to have false supporting documents, and 11 more had questionable documentation. In some cases, people listed on the applications said they never received assistance. Dates and names appeared to have been changed on some documents, according to the report.

The false or questionable applications resulted in $6,240 in gift cards being issued to or approved by Braness in those 18 months, according to the report.

Some gift cards issued to those reviewing grant applications "are simply unaccounted for," Bode said.

Gift cards used to compensate parent volunteers who serve on the Pact 4 board were issued to Braness but were difficult to track, she said.

The investigation covered 2005 and part of 2006, Bode said, but she recommended that Pact 4 study gift card issuance in 2004, too. In that year, Braness appeared to have received $35,000 more in gift cards than in any other year, she added.

Board action

After receiving the auditor's report, the board and its attorney Tom Kramer discussed how to proceed.

Several board members said they thought termination should be the next step. "I think the evidence seems pretty overwhelming," said board member Jill Bruns.


Kramer said the board could begin termination proceedings but couldn't fire Braness immediately. "We have to hear what she has to say," he said.

He outlined the procedure he would recommend, including meeting with Braness to hear her out and considering her side before making a final decision.

The board struggled with some wording in its personnel policy. It says that some infractions are "so severe" that the board could bypass the progressive discipline policy and move straight to termination, but it doesn't provide definitions.

The board voted to give Kramer the authority to begin the process. Kramer and board members Gerald Brustuen and Eugene Bonynge were appointed to meet with Braness at a time of her choosing on Friday.

The board set a special meeting for Oct. 10 to discuss its next step.

After the vote, Kramer said that the issue has been a difficult one for the board. Some of the issues the auditors had discussed were noted in last year's audit report but weren't addressed adequately.

"I don't know how you could possibly fix that; the person that was doing the fixing was the person that was in the hen house," Kramer said.

"You were relying on Toni to take care of the issues in the report," he said. "You had done that for a number of years."


Pact 4 has an all-staff retreat today which was scheduled months ago, Sheehan said after the meeting. As a result, the office will be closed today, and all the staff will be gone, but "we are still open for business," she said.

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