Sunday, January 19, 2003

Contractor hitting books to help city recover from scandal

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] Frank Dawson is helping Florence straighten out its finances.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
| ZOOM |
FLORENCE - It was late December, just days before Christmas, and officials and employees in this Northern Kentucky city were reeling.

On Dec. 16 Ron Epling, Florence's long-time finance director, was arrested for allegedly embezzling more than $1 million in city funds. He had been hauled off by police and led away to the Boone County Jail, stunning those who worked with and knew the respected civil servant.

Rather than settling back to enjoy the holidays, Mayor Diane Whalen suddenly was dealing with a sensational scandal.

Then Frank Dawson, who retired five years ago as the city of Cincinnati's finance director, called with an offer of help.

"He told me he had read about the problems in the newspaper," Ms. Whalen says. "He said he had some time, and he wanted to come over and talk to us to see if he could help."

Ms. Whalen, aware that the city was suddenly without the man who had overseen its books for 14 years, checked Mr. Dawson out. On Dec. 23, Florence announced that Mr. Dawson, 75, had been hired as an independent, hourly contractor to help Acting Finance Director Valerie Bowman put the city's finances in order.

"Basically," Mr. Dawson says nearly one month later, "I'm helping make sure the bills are paid and the money gets into the bank."

It's a job Mr. Dawson performed with success and acclaim during 21 years of overseeing Cincinnati's finances.

Former Cincinnati City Councilman Nick Vehr describes Mr. Dawson as the "consummate professional." So conservatively did he manage the city's money that "we joked about how tight he was."

The Epling case is not the first time Mr. Dawson has dealt with alleged improprieties with a public body's books, but it is by far the largest.

A native of Indiana and a graduate of Purdue University, Mr. Dawson was just out of school and working in the finance department at his alma mater when a mini-scandal was uncovered.

A cashier had been diverting student fees. Though Mr. Dawson did not uncover the scam, he did set up the department's first internal auditing system.

After working in government in Prince Georges County, Md., Mr. Dawson joined the city of Cincinnati in July 1976. He inherited a $20 million budget shortfall that resulted in layoffs of city staff that fall.

But he quickly made his mark. Just two years after Mr. Dawson's arrival, the city was awarded a Certificate of Excellence in Financial Reporting by a national association of government finance officers.

One of his innovations was investing some of the city's pension fund in the stock market. Previously, the retirement money of city employees had been invested in low-interest and fixed-income instruments such as bonds.

That decision resulted in growth of the pension fund from $165 million when Mr. Dawson arrived to $2.2 billion when he left in 1997.

During an interview in the cramped cubicle at the Florence Government Center that is serving as his office, Mr. Dawson said he isn't involved in the Epling investigation. He deftly deflected questions about the probe.

"You're getting into areas I'm just not going to get into," he said.

Neither he nor Florence officials can say how long his work for the city of Florence will last.

The father of four and grandfather of 11 still lives in the same Westwood home he moved into when he came to Cincinnati more than 25 years ago.

When not spending time with his wife, Mary Lou, the city of Harrison's former finance director, Mr. Dawson volunteers with several organizations., including the Wesley Hall and Lincoln Crawford retirement facilities, where he sits on the boards of trustees and helps oversee programs such as Meals on Wheels and Adult Day Care; Windsor School in Cincinnati, where he tutors two third-graders; and the Cincinnati Recreation Commission Foundation.

"I really like helping people out, and I look at this work in Florence as a chance to do that," he says. "Plus, it's kind of nice to get back into this kind of work. It's what did I did for a good part of my life, and I kind of miss it sometimes."


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