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Navajo County Health Director Indicted On Theft, Fraud Charges

A former Coconino County official who went on to oversee Navajo County's health department has been indicted on 16 counts of theft, misuse of public money and fraud, according to court documents.

The indictment announced Tuesday comes on the heels of a state audit that found Jeffrey Lee used purchase cards issued to him in both counties for personal benefit and falsified information in records. Navajo County said he was placed on administrative leave with pay Tuesday.

“We want to assure our residents and community partners that the Navajo County Health Department will continue to provide high quality and much-needed services without interruption,” County Manager Glenn Kephart said in a statement.

Lee referred the Associated Press to his attorney, Ryan Stevens, who said Wednesday that he's still reviewing the documents and declined comment. Lee is scheduled for a court appearance in Flagstaff in January.

Lee worked for Coconino County as an emergency preparedness manager from August 2012 until April 2017, when he left to take the position in Navajo County, where auditors alleged he kept spending public money on personal items.

According to the audit, Lee used his Coconino County card to buy $82,550 worth of gift cards and spent them on his family's cellphone services, a clothes dryer, items for his personal outfitting business and electronics. About 40 of the 237 purchases were made during holidays, weekends or when Lee was on vacation, the audit stated.

The audit also found Lee falsified information in the county's accounting system to make it look like the purchases were for legitimate county business. In one instance, Lee leased an RV and boat storage in Flagstaff using Coconino County funds, using it for a personal travel trailer, not storage for county emergency response supplies as he said, according to the audit.

Lee told auditors those charges were “mistakes” and that the county was being reimbursed. County spokesman Eric Peterson said Wednesday that Coconino County has no record of that and will seek repayment through the court case.

“Under the law, if someone does use misuse public funds, they are personally liable for them,” he told the Associated Press. “I'm unaware with my knowledge of the situation of any other party, other than the county taxpayers that have been victims of these purchases.”

In Navajo County, Lee reimbursed $9,148 after saying he used the “wrong card” when paying a cellphone service provider, a restaurant bill and contributing to a memorial. But the audit said Lee didn't do it until county officials requested repayment after discovering the purchases weren't for county business and that Lee had falsified information.

Navajo County spokesman Bryan Layton said the charges were identified during an annual audit in early 2020. Lee was required to surrender the credit card and repay the money, and placed on unpaid leave for five days. The county wasn't aware then of the investigation into Lee's purchase in Coconino County, he said.

“Viewed in isolation, we did not feel that the policy violations merited termination at that time,” Layton told the Associated Press.

Coconino County requested the state audit in September 2017 after finding questionable expenditures while fulfilling a public records request, Peterson said. The state audit also faulted the counties for not having adequate controls to review credit cards issued to employees. Coconino County, for example, didn't require Lee to itemize receipts and paid for transactions without reviewing them, auditors wrote.

The counties said they have strengthened their processes, but the auditor's report said they can do more to protect public money.

Coconino County Manager James Jayne said policies on annual training and itemized receipts are expected to be finalized early next year.

“Coconino County takes great care and concern for the outlay of public funds," he said in a statement.

Austin Fast joined KJZZ in 2020 as he finished his master's degree in investigative journalism at Arizona State's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.Before moving to Phoenix, he covered the world’s largest wild salmon fishery at KDLG Public Radio in rural Alaska, wrote breaking news at a Cincinnati TV station, and taught English overseas with the Peace Corps. He now works on the investigations team at National Public Radio in Washington, D.C.