DES MOINES, Iowa — Last year, then Monona County Auditor Brooke Kuhlmann made news by becoming the only county auditor in Iowa ever arrested for possession of methamphetamine.
Now she’s making news again. This time she’s accused of using taxpayer money for personal expenses during her tenure as county auditor.
A new report from the Office of the Iowa State Auditor details how allegedly Kuhlmann used county credit cards for everything from casino visits to purchases at the iTunes store.
The report identified more than $7,000 in inappropriate personal use of county credit cards. There were also more than $1,000 in late fees on those card because Kuhlmann did not make payments on time, the auditor said in the report.
According to the report, Kuhlmann was responsible for a total of $8,217 in appropriate purchases and late fees.
As auditor, Kuhlmann was the one responsible for monitoring the county’s spending for any irregularities.
County officials discovered the improper credit card use following Kuhlmann’s arrest for possession of methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia in July 2013.
“Up until then, everything seemed fine,” Monona County Board of Supervisors Chairman Tim Jessen told Iowa Watchdog. “There was no sign of anything going wrong.”
As the report documents, Kuhlmann’s alleged misuse of credit cards began in March 2012, more than a year before her drug arrest.
“Maybe we were naïve in counting on one person to look after the accounts,” Jessen said.
Whether the people of Monona County — population 9,243 — were naive, counting on a single person to monitor accounts is common in governments throughout rural Iowa. It’s a situation that frequently results in the misappropriation of funds
“It is a common situation,” Chief Deputy Auditor of the State of Iowa Warren Jenkins told Iowa Watchdog during an interview on official misconduct in rural Iowa. “In these smaller localities, there’s often a belief that they know an individual well and that leads to too much trust being placed on the individual.”
That was the case in Monona County.
Prior to her arrest, the most notable thing about Kuhlmann was her youth.
Kuhlmann was only 23 years old when she was first elected auditor in 2008. She was re-elected in 2012.
“She struck everyone as a very impressive person,” Jessen said. “That’s why what happened took everybody by surprise.”
Jessen and the other county supervisors got another surprise when they learned how hard it is to remove an elected official from office in Iowa.
Because Kuhlmann was only charged with misdemeanors following her arrest, her drug bust had no effect on her eligibility to serve as county auditor.
“Since it wasn’t a felony, it didn’t disqualify her. So we couldn’t remove her for that and we didn’t try. It was her dereliction of duty that was the more important factor,” Jessen said.
Following her arrest, Kuhlmann stopped showing up for work almost entirely.
It was during this time that a review of the files of the auditor’s office first revealed the misuse of credit cards. The county Board of Supervisors then requested the state auditor’s office conduct an investigation.
But because Kuhlmann did occasionally go to her office, removing her as auditor for dereliction of duty wasn’t easy.
Under Iowa law, an officeholder must be absent from work for 60 consecutive days before a county board can declare that office vacant.
Kuhlmann’s occasional appearances at the office prevented that from happening.
“It was a very tenuous and stressful time,” Jessen said.
In November, the Board of Supervisors instructed the county attorney to petition the district court to remove Kuhlmann from office.
On Dec, 11, Kuhlmann resigned before the court ruled on the county’s petition.
Later that month, Kuhlmann pleaded guilty to the drug charges against her. She was sentenced to two days in jail.
Iowa Watchdog was unable to contact Kuhlmann to get her response to the auditor’s report.
The audit report does note the county has been repaid by “a member of Kuhlmann’s family” for all the expenses related to the credit cards.
“Monona County taxpayers are not out any money. Everything has been repaid,” Jessen confirmed.
The state auditor’s office filed a copy of its report with the Monona County Attorney’s office. Iowa Watchdog attempted to contact County Attorney Michael Jensen to learn if Kuhlmann would face any charges for her alleged misuse of county credit cards, but Jensen did not respond to messages left with a secretary.
Monona County has made changes in how its credit cards are used.
“We now have more openness and have introduced checks into the system to make sure nothing like this happens again,” Jessen said.
“It’s been a real eye-opening situation.”