Council votes to terminate two City of Friend employees, Attorney estimates $1.4 million wasted

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FRIEND, Neb. Wednesday night the Friend City Council voted 4-0 to uphold Mayor Judith Knoke's decision to terminate Patrick Gates, the city utility superintendent, and Debbie Gilmer, the city clerk.

People in Friend, Nebrask meet at the fire station for a termination review hearing for former City Utilities Superintendent Patrick Gates and City Clerk Debbie Gilmer. The two are accused of wasting public dollars over a span of several years. (Source: KOLN)

Mayor Knoke told 10/11 NOW Gates and Gilmer had been on paid administrative leave since August. She recommended the two be terminated on October 26.

"They were on paid leave out of respect and facts," said Knoke. "We felt that they should be on paid leave and not unpaid leave."

On August 5 an attorney representing the city contacted the Auditor of Public Accounts (APA) over concerns about “frequent, high-dollar municipal purchases from two chemical distributors,” according to the audit report. APA Special Audits and Finance Manager Mary Avery issued her 27-page report on November 7, 2019.

"When we received them they were basically line items. They would give us the name of the company, how much the check was for so we didn't know what we were purchasing," said Knoke. "We had constantly been told that chemicals were expensive that they were like shampoo, you have your Suave all the way up to your Purology."

In front of dozens of people at the Friend Fire Station Wednesday evening, the city attorney said $1.4 million dollars was wasted by city employees. Initial estimates from receipts in the audit report showed at least $100,000 was wasted. The purchases, according to the audit, were made by Gates and approved by Gilmer. The items came from Central States Lab and Metro Chemical in Ankeny, Iowa. Both are operated by the same person and have the same address.

APA staff found similar items that were sold to the city of Friend, were also sold to other similar-sized cities in Nebraska at a much lower rate.

According to the report, it is unclear if “the City was simply duped into paying these astronomical prices or if any City staff were receiving kickbacks from the vendors.”

Gates spoke for upwards of 15 minutes urging council members to overturn the terminations. He told council members he trusted the person who was selling to him and that he’s spent his life working and serving for the Friend community. Gilmer was not at the hearing, instead Gates read a statement on her behalf.

Gates also said he was not getting any kickbacks from the transactions--citing his home, car and possessions as proof no money was taken.

Moving forward the mayor says the city will be changing its procedure when it comes to submitting financial records. As for getting back any of the overspent money the city is unsure if its possible at this time.

"We will be looking deeper into the past to see how long this has been transpiring and how much money has been lost over the years," said Knoke.