Weekly Obsession: Remember, they're gratuities, not fees

Tuesday, January 31, 2012 at 10:05pm

Davidson County Clerk John Arriola would like to forget this past Wednesday.

The fire that struck Norman Couser’s Country Kitchen — his Nolensville Pike eatery — would have been bad enough.

But then the state comptroller had to go and release an audit of the clerk’s office.

Justin Wilson couldn’t wait just one more day before sending out the report, sprinkled liberally with words like “improperly” and “deficiencies” and “violated”?

According to the audit, “Marriage department employees were required to place the $40 cash in an envelope for the county clerk along with any other information the couple specifically requested for their vows. The envelopes were delivered personally to the county clerk.”

In June 2011, Arriola told employees to refer to the $40 payments as gratuities instead of fees. Over the period of time covered by the audit — between Sept. 1, 2006, and July 30, 2011 — auditors estimated that Arriola performed about 2,985 marriage ceremonies and collected about $119,400.

The comptroller’s recommendation was that Arriola shouldn’t require a $40 fee in addition to the required taxes and license fees, but that he could “accept, request, or solicit gratuities.”

The comptroller goes on, finding several deficiencies in the clerk’s office, such as improper reporting and disbursing computer fees to the county trustee’s office; issues over payroll administration; a part-time employee who received full-time benefits; and management conducting “campaign activities” in the office during business hours.

Arriola responded to each of these allegations, though frequently the tone of those responses seemed the legalistic equivalent of “Nuh-uh!”

And, not to pile on, as obviously Arriola was having a tough day, but there’s no such thing as “antidotal hearsay,” unless the clerk was suggesting the alleged hearsay would prove a panacea to his woes.

This investigation was prompted by an investigation by no-longer-mustached gadfly Phil Williams of Channel 5. If anybody was as upset as Arriola by the audit release, it had to be Williams: the comptroller put out the report a full two weeks before February sweeps.

3 Comments on this post:

By: LizzyD on 2/1/12 at 10:35

"The comptroller’s recommendation was that Arriola shouldn’t require a $40 fee in addition to the required taxes and license fees, but that he could 'accept, request, or solicit gratuities.' "

This should not be legal -- should actually be cause for immediate dismissal. EGAD!

I'd say that the IRS might want to check on whether he's claimed these "gratuities" as income on his tax filing.

Don't be cruel, J.R. Is there a rule saying that a county employee must know the difference between antidote and anecdote to qualify for the job? Nah, I didn't think so.

By: govskeptic on 2/2/12 at 5:46

How revealing is the entire story with the punch line being a swipe at Phil
Williams. It's amusing to me how the opposing TV stations, local press,
and certainly the political class has such disdain for this guy that does
such a good job at Investigative Journalism. Investigations of government
was one of the honorable services of the press once it our history. I suppose
that is "ole school: now that this function has changed over to a partnership!

By: rickmuz on 2/3/12 at 10:23

Dear John;
When you "have" to give... it's not a gratuity. It's only called a gratuity because if you called it a service fee you would be sitting in jail. You think you have it all figured out, but I have a suspicion you will be out of a job here very soon. You probably won't end up in jail, but you will have certainly guaranteed two things 1) the next guy won't be able to do it and 2) your little scam income will come to an end.