Is The Fox Guarding The Henhouse In Roanoke City?

Against the backdrop of a high-drama campaign where eleven candidates are vying for four open seats on Roanoke City Council, a concerned citizen recently reported to The Roanoke Star and at least one other Valley news organization a questionable museum tour and dinner involving Councilmember Joe Cobb and 16 other people.

Receipt for Joe Cobb’s $658 dinner. Note the upper right corner says “Gun Violence Prevention Commission” and “Intervention Program Grant.”

Roanoke City had been paying a consulting firm to give advice about how to curb the city’s spiraling problem with violence and crime by using a Youth and Gang Violence Community Assessment. Sadly, one member of that consulting firm passed away during that timeframe.

One part of the City’s expression of support was purchasing a memorial tree in the name of the deceased person. The fees regarding that memorial tree were paid for by private funds. The other, and now more controversial part, involved an expensive meal and tour of the Taubman Art Museum which was offered up by Joe Cobb.

The Roanoke Star has reached out to Cobb via both his campaign and City email addresses with a number of questions to answer as well as an open-ended opportunity to freely tell his side of the story. Regrettably, as of publication date, no responses have been received from Cobb.

On Tuesday, March 29 (approximately):  Cobb allegedly asked verbal permission of a member of the City Manager’s office if he could take a group to tour the Taubman Art Museum as well as have dinner, using funds from the $500,000 Gun Violence Intervention Program Grant that Roanoke City has received from the state.

Reportedly, that city employee reached out to the Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) in Richmond and was told, yes, grant money could be used to pay for the event. That city employee then gave Cobb verbal assent that yes, the grant money would pay for the tickets and dinner.

The City’s audit report states the following: “The City employee serving as the Project Director for the Gun Violence Intervention Program Grant stated that the Gun Violence Intervention Program Coordinator at the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) verbally approved the dinner. An email string between the City’s Project Director and the Grant Program Coordinator, dated March 29, 2022, describes the dinner as being for the consultants and city staff who worked on the project. The email string did not include a response from the Grant Program Coordinator regarding the proposed dinner. However, the Program Coordinator confirmed to our office that he had talked with the City’s Project Director about the dinner and had advised her that it would be an allowable cost. The museum tour was not mentioned in the email and had not been discussed with the Grant Program Coordinator prior to our investigation.”

Some observers have questioned why Cobb only allowed two days to get approval for an event of this size and communicated verbally, without leaving any written records. The rushed timing and lack of written authorization leaves some to question Cobb’s judgment and how firmly he understands and follows proper procedures, especially since he has been on City Council for four years including two as vice-mayor.

Thursday, March 31: Reportedly, after the tree planting, Cobb accompanied the group to the art museum because some of the consultants had expressed interest in seeing it. Tickets for the museum’s fee-only exhibit totaled $225 while the meal for seventeen diners at the Bloom Restaurant and Wine Bar cost $658.79. The sum total for the evening was $883.79. Cobb used a City-issued payment card to pay for the dinner with the expectation the gun violence grant money would later reimburse the City.

Contributing to the controversy is, even if the dining experience at the Bloom Restaurant and Wine Bar had been technically allowable by the state, (which it was not), how is spending $658 for such an evening a legitimate use of a grant designed to curb gun violence and save lives? Moreover, was Cobb showing proper judgment and concern for his constituents by throwing such a lavish dinner for a group of people whose identities still remain anonymous?

Friday, April 1: An anonymous caller left a message on the City’s fraud, waste and abuse hotline expressing concerns about the museum visit and meal being paid on the taxpayers’ dime.

Monday, April 4: The City’s auditing department heard the phone tip, and that triggered an audit.

Late April: City auditor Drew Harmon explains: “I wanted to brief the City Attorney and share the hotline report with him before contacting Mr. Cobb to schedule a meeting.  I did this after I returned to the office full time in late April.  After we met, Mr. Spencer and I arranged a meeting with Mr. Cobb, together, on April 29.”

Friday, May 6: Early voting began in Virginia for primaries.

April/May: The City sought to get reimbursement from Richmond for the museum tickets and dinner. In conversations between the City and DCJS, however, the DCJS said grant money can be used for “working meals” that involve a business meeting, but since the March 31 affair was only a museum visit and dinner with no meeting, it was all categorized as “entertainment” and thus Richmond would not pay for it.

Referring to this timeframe, Harmon emailed: “Once DCJS confirmed that the expenditures were not allowable, we met with Mr. Cobb and he decided he would cover the cost.  He repaid the money in June and we planned to prepare a report in time for the September Audit Committee (quarterly meeting).”

Adding to the sense of unease among some Roanoke residents, according to the City’s official website, not only does Cobb head the City Gun Violence Prevention Commission, but he is ALSO Chair of the Audit Committee.

This created the awkward situation wherein during the summer and fall, auditors found themselves auditing the chair of the Audit Committee. This has left some citizens wondering how this could possibly not be a conflict of interest.

When asked about that relationship, Harmon responded: “I would also note that I am appointed and evaluated by the City Council as a whole, not by any one member.  The facts around these expenditures are well documented, just as they are stated in the report.” The timeline continues:

Wednesday, June 1: Audit committee held their quarterly meeting. There was no mention of the museum and meal incident.

Thursday, June 9: Cobb reimbursed the City for the full $883.79.

Tuesday, June 21: Voting for primaries in Virginia ended. Cobb was one of the top vote-getters in the Democrat primary in Roanoke City and thus got his name on the November ballot.

Friday, August 5: According to Harmon, the first draft of the auditor’s report was given to the City Attorney. Describing the first draft, Harmon emailed: “The attached draft was the one given to Mr. Spencer [City Attorney], who made no suggested revisions, and then was given to Mr. Cobb.  You will see that from the first draft to the final report, the substance of the report remained the same.  Mr. Cobb thought the expenditures would be allowable under the grant, we found they were not, and as a result Mr. Cobb repaid the expenditures to the city.  The most significant addition is Mr. Cobb’s comments, which are clearly identified as his comments.”

Tuesday, August 9: The auditors’ first draft was discussed with the City Attorney.

Friday, August 12: Harmon emailed, “We dated the report and provided it to Mr. Cobb for his review. As the Committee date approached, I met with Mr. Cobb about nuances in wording, proper titles, characterization of funds as grants in some places and city funds in others, etc. (…) The end result was that we were short on time to finalize the report.”

When asked about the appropriateness of a person who is being investigated having the opportunity to first read and even edit the draft and if this is standard procedure for the City, Harmon emailed: “It is our standard practice to review draft audit reports with those involved to help ensure our facts are sound and our understanding is comprehensive.  They are typically the subject matter experts and we make sure that we objectively consider their input.”

On the other hand, the person under investigation being allowed to review and even craft the language of the investigation seems wildly out of the ordinary and against normal investigative procedures at best.

In what some may see as a real-life version of something from Dilbert or even Monty Python, the story might be summed up as: The auditors audited the head of the auditing committee, but before releasing their audit showed the rough draft of the audit to the head of the auditing committee so he could audit the wording and nuances of the audit to ensure the head of the audit committee appeared as innocent as possible in the audit.

That might sound a bit humorous but relative to how city funding and resources are used for such a serious topic (gun violence) it’s probably not very funny in most people’s minds.

Wednesday, September 7: Audit committee held their quarterly meeting. Just like at the June meeting, there was no mention of the museum and meal incident. Some observers question this silence, since early voting for City Council elections would start in September, and Cobb was running for re-election. Harmon said that he had originally planned to add the spending issue to the agenda for the December meeting, which would be a month after the elections would be over.

Friday, September 23: Early voting began in Virginia.

Monday, October 10: Harmon explained: “We typically accumulate our reports during the quarter and send them out to Audit Committee members 3 to 5 days in advance of the public meeting.  I asked Mr. Cobb if he had any remaining concerns about the report on October 10th and if he wanted to provide a response to be included in the report. Mr. Cobb was working on his response and expected to have it to me within a few days. Mr. Cobb expressed no concerns on October 10.  He just needed time to finish writing his comments for inclusion in the report [about him].”

Late on Wednesday, October 19: City officials received the first press inquiry about this situation.

Thursday, October 20: Harmon emailed: “I notified Mr. Cobb 10/20 and received his written response that same day.  The report went to Council members the afternoon of the 20th since it would be released the following day in response to a FOIA request.”  (Apparently, at least some of those Council members had been totally unaware of this situation and found out just four days before the story hit local media.)

Friday, October 21: The municipal office released the auditor’s report into the handling of the museum and dinner payments to The Roanoke Times.

Around 4:00 pm Monday, October 24: The Roanoke Star reached out to City auditor Drew Harmon for a statement about the situation.

Around 8:00 pm Monday, October 24: The Roanoke Times published the story on its website with the Headline, “Audit on outing finds Roanoke Councilman Joe Cobb did nothing wrong; timing questioned.” That extraordinary headline seems to go to great lengths to exonerate Cobb. The message essentially is “Nothing to see here, folks. Move along, everybody….”

However, many in Southwest Virginia have come to realize The Roanoke Times has gained a reputation over the years for frequently puffing up Democrats and demonizing Republicans. So that reality along with the unanswered questions surrounding this case have left some readers wondering if they are being told the whole story or not.

To quote The Washington Post’s slogan, “Democracy Dies In Darkness.”

– Scott Dreyer

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