ETCOG fires finance director on heels of letter from whistleblower

ETCOG fires finance director on heels of letter from whistleblower

KILGORE (KYTX) - Charles Cunningham won awards as director of finance and administrative support, but after three years at the East Texas Council of Governments, he was fired Friday.

Cunningham says it's because he's tried to stand in the way of unnecessary spending at the agency in Kilgore and because he warned a whistleblower that they were being targeted by ETCOG administrators.

The agency says it's not commenting on personnel matters, but allegations of financial mismanagement are not true.

Charles Cunningham has worked more than 30 years in public finance. In 2010, he was hired at ETCOG, a regional planning and grant distribution agency based in Kilgore that serves Smith, Gregg, Henderson and 11 other Northeast Texas counties.
ETCOG also oversees Workforce Solutions, which helps jobless East Texans and employers, and the Area Agency on Aging.

In January 2013, ETCOG Executive Director David Cleveland gave Cunningham the agency's On-the-Spot Award for going above and beyond to help reorganizations offices outside his own department.

Friday, Cleveland fired him, after Cunningham's conversation with a whistleblower.

"David asked me if I had told her that they knew, or we knew, that she had written the letter, the anonymous letter, which had been critical of the COG," Cunningham says.

A seven-page anonymous letter was delivered January 23 to CBS 19 and six other agencies, including the Texas Attorney General and the Gregg County District Attorney's office. The letter alleges ETCOG frivolously spends thousands of dollars under Cleveland's watch.
Cunningham says, on Friday he was asked to talk with the whistleblowing employee about a new job description.

"It didn't seem like any consequences were going to occur because of that, and I assumed that we were going to keep her employed," Cunningham says. "Going forward I figured it was only fair to her to say, 'OK, here's, here's, get everything out on the table ... And then the question of the letter came up, and I just said, 'Well, they know it was you.'"

Cunningham says, when his boss learned of the conversation, he was immediately fired.

But despite his past successes at ETCOG, Cunningham says he wasn't surprised.

ETCOG hasn't broken laws, but he says it's funneled tens of thousands of dollars to certain contractors, and that perhaps millions of dollars could have been misspent if he had not stood in the way as finance director.

"This was kinda waiting for the other shoe to drop, that my position was kind of tenous anyway," Cunningham says.

Cleveland declined to respond on camera to the allegations because they involved personnel matters, but in an itemized response to allegations of frivolous spending, he says that all purchases over 15 thousand dollars were approved by ETCOG's executive committee of area elected officials, and that under Cleveland's leadership, ETCOG has become more financially, structurally and technically sound, with a savings account that's nearly doubled since June 2007.


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