City of Seward Finance Director Kris Erchinger issued an extraordinary public rebuke of a sitting council member last week when she said that she had brought a fraud complaint against Council Member Suzanne Towsley when Towsley was an employee of the city.
Towsley denied that the events described by Erchinger took place.
“I’d like to say loudly and on the record that I’ve never been accused of fraud,” Towsley said at the meeting.
The accusation came at the beginning of a special meeting last Wednesday, called to discuss candidates for interim city manager. Erchinger told the council that she felt compelled to speak out during the public comment period, particularly after a thorny conversation at the previous council meeting in which Towsley asked Erchinger whether she “considers herself family to the two brothers,” referring to Deputy Finance Director Sam Hickok and Assistant City Manager Brennan Hickok, implicitly charging Erchinger with favoritism.
“I’d like to go on record as saying there’s a lot of bad blood between the two of us,” Erchinger said of herself and Towsley. “It has to do with when she worked for the city and I filed a complaint against her for fraud. So that’s the bottom line.”
“I’ve seen people run off the city manager and the assistant city manager,” she continued, “and I’m not going to allow that to happen to me without getting an attorney.”
Erchinger did not elaborate on the nature of the fraud, but Marsha Vincent, who did payroll for the city at that time, said that Towsley routinely claimed in her timesheets that she had worked 40 hours each week although she was seldom in the office.
“We got to where we would actually keep track of when she was coming and going,” Vincent said. “Her phone would ring all the time and there’s nobody to pick it up except for the recording. People would come in and ask for her. Where is she? When will she be in? Nobody knew.”
From 2012 to 2015, Towsley worked as the executive liaison for former city manager Jim Hunt, who Vincent said approved those timesheets in spite of concerns brought to him by Erchinger and Vincent.
Vincent said that Towsley often turned in her timesheets late, which required Hunt to approve them in paper. Vincent did allow that Towsley might have been working off site or made other arrangements with her boss but eventually became convinced that she was claiming more hours than she actually worked.
“I finally went to [Hunt] and I said, ‘Look. I just want you to know this is not on me. I know she’s not working, but if you’re signing for her, it’s fraud, and it’s all on you,’” Vincent said.
Neither Hunt nor Towsley responded to voicemails left for them on Tuesday.
Erchigner declined to elaborate on her accusation when reached by phone on Tuesday, saying only that she stood by what she had said in the meeting.
“Members of my department asked that management handle the abuse of taxpayers by a city employee, end of story,” she said. “I was doing my job in passing that information along.”
Towsley is currently the target of a recall petition co-sponsored by Hunt. The petitioners allege she has abused her position as a council member. Hunt left office earlier this month.