Kentucky State Auditor Adam Edelen
Kentucky State Auditor Adam Edelen

State Auditor Adam Edelen released a scathing examination on Thursday of the former administration for the small city of West Buechel in Louisville, showing hundreds of thousands of dollars in questionable spending that did not have the approval of its city council and may have been for the previous mayor’s personal benefit.

West Buechel is one of Louisville’s 83 incorporated small cities, with a population of 1,200. In January, the city’s council asked Edelen’s office to investigate questionable loans and purchases by the administration of its former mayor Sharon Fowler, who lost her re-election bid last November.

Edelen referred the case to the state attorney general, the FBI and the Kentucky Department of Revenue for possible criminal charges, questioning whether the city’s government should remain in place since its financial record keeping is in such disarray.

“This city of roughly 1,300 residents is a mess,” said Edelen in his press release announcing the agency’s findings. “I’d say it has been run poorly, but I’m not sure it was being run at all. When you don’t know what property you own, investments you’ve made or bank accounts you possess, how on earth can you effectively manage taxpayer dollars? If this city can’t be governed properly, perhaps this community needs to reexamine its current structure.”

Former West Buechel Mayor Sharon Fowler, whose administration was implicated of rampant financial abuse by state Auditor Adam Edelen
Former West Buechel Mayor Sharon Fowler, whose administration was implicated of rampant financial abuse by state Auditor Adam Edelen

Though severely hampered in their investigation due to large amounts of missing accounting records — some of which reportedly was stolen or destroyed — Edelen’s office discovered city funds paying the monthly balance of a credit card issued in the name of Fowler, questionable purchases of property and personal items, and city loans and checks going to Fowler and other city officials.

Nearly $87,000 in charges were made on a credit card issued to Fowler, all without supporting documentation as to the governmental purpose. Approximately $38,000 of these purchases appeared personal in nature, such as over $4,000 on QVC and the Home Shopping Network, and more than $3,000 at Kentucky Kingdom. The city’s operating account automatically paid the monthly balance of the credit card, the existence of which was not known by the city council.

The city of West Buechel also purchased $364,000 of property that had questionable or no public benefit, which did not appear to be independently appraised or disclosed to the council. Additional investigation into one of these properties — which was sealed off by police and had its locks changed in January — showed business records related to two private companies that Mayor Fowler was associated with, in addition to the suspicious removal of the hard drive for two computers.

“The removal of hard drives from two on-site computers demonstrates action may have been taken to prevent the computers’ contents from being identified,” read the audit report. “According to the current Mayor, the two on-site computers were functional prior to securing the building.”

Among the purchases of a city credit card issued under Mayor Fowler's name
Among the purchases of a city credit card issued under Mayor Fowler’s name

The audit also found that city funds were loaned to three government officials — including Fowler — and $22,361 worth of city checks for salary payments were not reported as taxable income. On two occasions, a $2,500 check was written for cash, while two checks amounting to $2,200 were written to Fowler.

Additionally, the city opened at least two bank accounts that were under Fowler’s control and not disclosed to the West Buechel city council, and a 5 percent increase to the city’s insurance premium tax may have been illegally instituted by Fowler after the city council rejected such an increase.

Current West Buechel Mayor Rick Richards — who defeated Fowler in last year’s election — told WFPL that many of the city’s financial records were either destroyed or stolen once he came into office.

“There was about six months’ worth of QuickBooks that had been erased,” Richards said. “Just tons of stuff shredded … big construction bags, and all of it was shredded.”

Richards won his race over Fowler last year by only 10 votes, despite pleading guilty to felony drug charges two months before the election, in which police say he flushed some of his oxycodone pills down the toilet as they entered his house on a search warrant.

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Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]