by Max Brantley
I saw County Judge Buddy Villines at the River Market this morning. It's not been a happy week for the county, with the embezzlement arrest of recently departed county comptroller Ron Quillin (pictured below).
Yes, Villines says, criminal background checks will be performed in the future on high financial officials. Quillin had a hot check forgery conviction in Clark County, it was confirmed yesterday (though after I went to press with an Insider mentioning the likelihood). Villines argues that it would have been difficult to run down, because the conviction was expunged. But I'm also told that such arrests still appear on the National Crime Information Center database. It would have been cause, at least, for further inquiry.
The state of Arkansas apparently doesn't run such background checks either -- or at least not effectively in the case of the state Health and Human Services Department. It hired Quillin for more than $90,000 a year to be the chief financial officer of multi-million-dollar Medicaid program. He's been placed on leave.
So far, the rap on Quillin is that he used a mostly dormant county officials' organization checking account to take in small checks intended for the county -- commissions on vending machines and phone services and, Villines told me, rebate checks from Office Depot on county business supply purchases. He'd then write checks to a secret personal account. About $42,000 in stolen funds has been documented since the first of 2006. Villines doesn't believe the theft holds implications for the larger county budget, which has run persistently in the red. (Villines blames the Quorum Court for spending reserve funds and setting budgets far in excess of expected revenue.)
Some further attention is likely to focus on county accounting software. Treasurer Debra Buckner criticized it in the Democrat-Gazette this morning. Villines says it's working fine.
It's of interest not only for strictly accounting reasons. Villines acknowledged he'd heard the rumors that Quillin was involved with a member of the out-of-state team that sold the county the software and that Quillin may have spent some of his ill-gotten money on her. Villines said he'd questioned Quillin some time ago about the rumored relationship and Quillin had denied it. (Quillin reportedly was in the woman's company at a pre-theater reception at the Arkansas Rep this year, an event that occasioned a brief and awkward meetup with Villines and Buckner and their spouses.)
That's a lot of drama surrounding a guy who worked his way up from a contract to handle beaver control for the county to handling tens of millions in public funds.
PS -- An anonymous tipster claims that Quillin's misappropriation of money began after some key county layoffs in response to budget shortfalls in late 2005. These included an internal auditor, likely in a position to oversee the account Quillin used, and a grant management staff whose duties supposedly included seeing that odd deposits and rebates were deposited in the proper accounts.