The city of Friend formally terminated Patrick Gates, former utilities supervisor, and Debbie Gilmer, former city clerk, during a public hearing Nov. 13.

An investigation conducted by the Nebraska Auditor of Public Accounts found that Gates misused $1.4 million to purchase supplies for the city pool and other maintenance products.

As clerk, Gilmer was responsible for using city funds to pay the invoices from the two companies from which Gates purchased, Central States Lab and Metro Chemical, both based in Ankeny, Iowa.

Gates and Gilmer had been placed on administrative leave since August, and Mayor Judith Knoke called for their termination on Oct. 26.

The auditor found that Stephen Weihs, owner of both companies, sold supplies to the city at heavily inflated prices, sometimes charging three or four times the actual price.

Gates was present at the hearing, but Gilmer was not.

During the hearing, city attorney Katie Spohn called Nebraska State Deputy Auditors Craig Kubicek and Mary Avery to testify on their findings in the investigation. 

"The purpose of the report is to present facts as we know it," Kubicek said.

They reviewed the steps of the investigation and what it entailed, including contacting officials from other cities of similar size about their pool maintenance costs and other supply companies to compare product prices. 

During the hearing, Spohn asked Friend resident Kristen Milton about an instance where Gilmer refused to disclose public records about the city pool. Milton has been working with a committee to pass a bond issue to build a new pool.

Spohn then asked current city clerk Kim Goosen how records are distributed when requested by city officials or the public. She also asked Goosen about a Verizon cell phone line the city had paid for in March 2018. 

"Do you know who that phone line belongs to?" Spohn asked.

Goosen said she did not, but that it was traced back to Gilmer upon payment. 

During his testimony, Gates said he gave Gilmer the authority to have the cell phone, which was supposedly used by her daughter. 

The mayor and city council said they were not aware a personal item, the phone, had been taken out of a public entity and that only they could give such authority. 

Gates then read a statement from Gilmer, who was not present, and spoke on his own behalf, asking the terminations to be reversed. He said he did not receive any kickbacks from Weihs.

"I am totally ashamed and heartbroken," Gates said. "I have no excuse to offer you."

In her statement, Gilmer clarified payments sent to Central States and Metro Chemical Lab. She also said she never refused Milton's request for records.

"To imply that I am responsible (for loss of money) is totally without foundation and is deceiving to the citizens of Friend," Gilmer said.

Gates then read his own statement, reflecting on the time he has served as Friend's utility supervisor, nearly 30 years. He said he trusted all vendors he worked with and even called them friends. 

"I should have been more careful, and I will never trust anyone again," Gates said. "To the City of Friend, I can only ask that you forgive me."

Following the hearing, city officials said the city is updating its claims process so that all claims will now have to be approved by more than just the clerk, though according to state law, the city council must approve all claims against the city after receiving a written copy with a detailed description of each purchase.

In its report, the auditor questioned whether the council was in compliance with the state law.

The council then addressed the public and answered questions. 

Council member Shane Stutzman addressed the public, saying, "We shoulder a lot of the blame for this."

The city is continuing its investigation into past claims and funds spent.

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