Hunterdon Human Resources director retired amidst probe, Yard says at Finance hearing

FLEMINGTON — Cheryl Wieder decided to retire as county Human Resources (personnel) director as auditors were starting to ask questions about bill payments and procedures, County Administrator Cindy Yard reluctantly disclosed Wednesday.

That was revealed as Yard was being cross-examined during the hearing on administrative charges she lodged against county Finance Director Kimberly Brown and Treasurer Margaret Pasqua. Yard has accused the two of various wrongdoings and wants to fire them.

In response to a series of questions from attorney Guy De Sapio, who represents the two employees, Yard said that retirement was one of the alternatives she talked about with Wieder when discussing her performance. She denied that she asked or encouraged Wieder to retire.

But when De Sapio asked if she had told Wieder that “performance concerns” would result in disciplinary action, Yard replied that she brought the situation “to the forefront” with Wieder and her quitting was among the alternatives discussed.

Later Yard, who said Wieder had taken an “unplanned retirement,” confirmed for De Sapio that her leaving was in his words “not an ordinary retirement but involved a settlement agreement between her and the county” which was put in writing.

While Yard did not say what specifically Wieder had done, she termed it “the violation of a standard, and certainly consequences for standards being violated are all part of when we discuss a situation with an employee.”

Leaving rather than facing discipline was an appropriate alternative for Wieder, Yard said, “given the years of service and the eligibility for retirement.” According to records, Wieder enrolled in the state retirement system in 1986 and had a salary of $89,664 last year. She was promoted to personnel director in 1998, the same year Yard started working for the county.

Browne and Pasqua were suspended with pay when Yard filed the charges against them Sept. 24 after release of two auditors’ reports highly critical of the Finance Department. The problems listed include inaccurate financial statements for 2012, deceased former employees still receiving benefits, incorrect Medicare billing for certain retirees, and lack of proper controls over certain actions.

Yard testified Wednesday morning that the firm that did the county audit for 2012, Wiss & Co., first began reporting problems in the winter or early spring.

“Isn’t it the case, that as the situation developed, it became a continual embarrassment for you, as county administrator and that you had already gotten rid of the human resources director and her assistant?” De Sapio asked. “And because of the size of the problem, you needed somebody else to blame for these overpayments on health insurance bills and you selected these two employees?”

Yard’s reply was a simple and emphatic “absolutely not!” The assistant, Adrian Prokofiew, was transferred to Buildings and Maintenance after Wieder left, Yard said.

She explained earlier that Wiss wanted to check on health benefits payments because they suspected people were getting benefits who weren’t eligible. Three people who had died — one back in 1996 — and an employee laid-off in 2011 were among those found.

When she got the full report, Yard said, Wieder had already retired “so I did what I needed to do, and that was to refer the situation to the Board of Chosen Freeholders and we started to immediately look into it.”

Much of De Sapio’s questioning on Wednesday was related to paying for health insurance and what department is responsible for reviewing the bills, Finance or Human Resources. Hunterdon pays $9 million to $11 million a year for health benefits, Yard noted, and with the bills about $750,000 to $900,000 a month, “is something that should have been closely reviewed.”

Yard continued on the witness stand Wednesday afternoon and was to be followed by Frederick Tompkins, a senior partner in the Donohue, Gironda & Doria accounting firm. It was hired in July to temporarily run the Finance Department and report on findings as well as offer suggestions for changes.

Then the hearing will resume Monday, Nov. 4 and continue Thursday, Nov. 7. From the tenor of De Sapio’s questions to Yard and other witnesses for the county since the hearing started Oct. 21, it appears that he is trying to show that if mistakes were made or tasks not completed, it was by staff in other departments, in particular Human Resources.

De Sapio has represented Pasqua and Browne, along with Payroll Administrator Megan Youells, since shortly after the county temporarily moved the three out of their posts in late June after the Wiss reports were released. Since then, they worked at lower levels in other departments, until Browne and Pasqua were suspended.

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