The town of Spring Lake hired a financial director in 2020 without conducting interviews or looking at a resume, though her background included multiple bankruptcies, tax liens, unpaid credit card bills and failed businesses, The News & Observer has learned.
At the time, the town about 50 miles south of Raleigh was already mired in money problems, found by state auditors in a 2016 audit to have spent nearly $500,000 on purchases that were either questionable or in violation of its own policies.
Now a second NC audit reports that the same financial director spent at least $430,112 for personal use, driving the town deeper into its financial hole.
The 2022 report from NC Auditor Beth Wood does not name Gay Tucker, now 63, who was an accounting technician for Spring Lake at the time of her promotion. But the dates of employment and personal details in the report match Tucker’s tenure in Spring Lake, and multiple news outlets have identified her.
In 2020, the town board voted 3-2 to give her charge of Spring Lake’s finances and pay her a $71,000 salary. Alderwoman Fredricka Sutherland objected, saying she had not talked to Tucker and that Tucker had not submitted an application or resume, according to minutes from the meeting.
“I kept pushing that we have experienced individuals in our finance department,” Sutherland, who no longer sits on the board, told the N&O this week. “We asked for her information, for her background, for her to be vetted. The ones that voted for her, they did not force her to give the paperwork.”
Tucker could not be reached by the N&O through various phone numbers, email or at her listed address.
The state’s report and Spring Lake’s minutes show the town unable to complete its own audits on time, overspending by more than $1 million in a year, keeping no record of its spending and at times not making notes of official meetings.
Shortly after Tucker left the town’s employment — fired in 2021, the most recent audit said — the state’s Local Government Commission announced it would take control of Spring Lake’s finances.
Wood’s audit recommended the town take legal action against its former accounting technician.
No charges have been filed against any Spring Lake employee since 2016, but the Cumberland County district attorney’s office told the N&O on Thursday that the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office are now handling the case.
And on Thursday night, after the aldermen voted to hire former Wake County Manager Joe Durham as their interim town manager, members of the General Assembly met privately with newly elected Mayor Kia Anthony.
“We are surprised and dismayed in the response of the state auditor and the LGC contained in the report,” she said in a YouTube video broadcast last week, noting that all but one town alderman is new. “As mayor, I want to assure you that the town of Spring Lake is stabilizing and moving in the right direction.”
At Thursday’s meeting, Rep. Marvin Lucas, longtime Democratic legislator and the town’s former mayor, told reporters he did not know details and had not spoken with Wood’s office.
“Casting blame does no good,” he said. “It doesn’t get the money back.”
A troubled financial history
Spring Lake sits alongside Fayetteville, its larger neighbor to the south, and Fort Bragg, the sprawling Army post whose soldiers make up much of its roughly 12,000 citizens.
The 2016 audit was triggered by reports of missing money and purchasing card abuse, and it forced town officials to make a plan to better track their spending.
That plan included putting a relatively new employee in charge of overseeing all town purchasing card purchases — Tucker, then still an accounting technician.
She would provide “day to day” oversight of the purchasing cards, making sure only those assigned to one could use them, according to a town memo given to the state auditor.
She also had to prepare a monthly report detailing purchasing card use that required town manager approval.
But by then, Tucker and her husband were suffering their own considerable money problems, court records show.
Their Chapter 13 bankruptcy filing reported zero family income and also showed that both Tucker’s income and the family car had been seized as payment toward a state income tax lien.
Their total liabilities totaled nearly $150,000, the bankruptcy filing said, including state and federal income taxes and at least seven credit cards.
Chapter 13 bankruptcy involves money a debtor plans to repay. Though records were not available for two earlier filings, it appears at least one of them was cleared.
But in Tucker’s 2014 filing, she and her husband worked out a $667 monthly repayment plan that their trustee soon reported they were not meeting. By 2015, a judge dismissed their bankruptcy case for noncompliance, and it is unclear what consequences followed.
Trouble followed Gay Tucker to Spring Lake
As Tucker rose in town management to become the finance director, she began abusing her authority to quietly pocket $430,000 in town money, the state audit released last week found.
A quarter of the money she took paid for her husband’s expenses at a senior living center, reported in the bankruptcy filing to be more than $2,000 a month. Tucker wrote 13 checks for $113,015 from the town’s account to Heritage Place Senior Living, according to the 2022 audit. She wrote 72 checks in all for “personal use.”
Her finance director role allowed her to write and sign the town’s checks, the 2022 audit said.
Earlier in her employment at Spring Lake, in 2016, the state auditor signed off on Tucker’s purchasing card oversight along with several other measures intended to rein in the town’s sloppy spending practices, Chris Rey, who was then mayor, told the N&O this week.
Wood on Friday praised Spring Lake’s response in 2016, while criticizing the town’s response to the 2022 audit as vague and lacking accountability.
The 2022 audit noted the town’s lack of follow-through from the 2016 audit.
“If the Town had followed the recommendations from the 2016 report, developed a detailed corrective action plan, including an estimated date for implementation and who was responsible for the corrective action, and ensured the plan was put in place and followed by Town employees, the issues found in this investigation, especially those that are repeated from the 2016 investigation, may not have occurred,” the audit report said.
Town officials did not know about Tucker’s financial problems when they put her in charge of overseeing the purchasing cards, Rey said, but that role did not give her the power to abuse them.
He said the officials who promoted her to finance manager should have vetted her first.
Spring Lake’s 2016 audit
Rey said the spending identified in the 2016 audit was mostly legitimate but lacked proper documentation. That included roughly $9,000 in travel and other expenses he had incurred.
The town pored over the hundreds of expenditures that lacked receipts or prior approvals, and discovered roughly $17,000 in misspending by a handful of officials, all of whom either resigned or were fired, he said.
The town ordered them to pay the money back or the town would press charges, Rey said.
Among those identified in the audit as making personal expenditures with town money were the town manager, interim recreation director and interim finance director.
“Because they paid the money back, we were satisfied with that, based on their explanation of what the money was used for,” Rey told the N&O.
The state auditor’s report said it referred the 2016 findings related to the personal expenditures to the SBI. But referrals do not automatically trigger an SBI investigation, and the SBI did not investigate the misspending, spokeswoman Anjanette Grube wrote to the N&O in an email.
“I thought it should have went to the DA,” Sutherland, the former Spring Lake alderwoman, told the N&O this week. “Nobody was ever prosecuted.”
Rey said when he was elected mayor in 2011, he inherited serious problems with town management. Two years earlier, two sergeants in the police department were charged with fabricating reports and several other crimes. The county sheriff had to take over policing the town.
When he left in 2017, he said subsequent administrations didn’t follow the reforms set in place after the 2016 audit. Rey, a Democrat who made an unsuccessful run for a U.S. Senate seat in 2016, said he now works for a health care company in Phoenix, Arizona.
“At the end of the day, everything rises and falls with leadership,” he said. “Unfortunately, the leadership before me did not do what they were supposed to do. I did what I was supposed to do when I was the leader of the town, and then the leadership after me didn’t do what they were supposed to.
“I will tell you as a former mayor, it really hurts my heart to see what has taken place,” Rey said.
This is one in a series of ongoing stories about financial problems in Spring Lake.
This story was originally published March 25, 2022 1:45 PM.