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12/07/2019

Burke says Nelson Tried to Hire Her

 

Former Mississippi County finance director Brenda Burke said Mississippi County Judge John Alan Nelson asked her "about a month ago" to come back to work for the county at her former position.

"He said there might be an opening in his office, and I said, 'well, I don't want to run anybody out of their job. But let me think about it and talk to my family,'" Burke told the NEA Town Courier on Thursday.

Judge Nelson did not return phone calls and messages left for him on Thursday and Friday. Earlier this week, Justice Michael White released an Oct. 3-dated email that he sent to several fellow justices regarding a meeting he had with Judge Nelson, who allegedly threatened to fire current finance director Kelli Jones and bring back Burke if White did not help get the judge's son, John David Nelson, on the county payroll.

Judge Nelson has denied making the threat. Earlier this week, Judge Nelson said his family is good friends with the Burkes. "It had kind of gotten irritating that Michael thought that this was funny, and I didn't," Judge Nelson said. "There was a conversation that Michael and I had and at one point, I just looked at him. And I wasn't laughing, because it wasn't funny to me. But I said, 'I'll hire Brenda Burke.' But I never threatened to fire Kelli. Not only did I never, but I'm also not now and I'm not in the future. It was never any plans; it was a flippant remark. It kind of took on a world of its own."

Ultimately, Burke said she told Nelson she would assist as a contractor and train employees in the finance office if needed, but would not return as an employee. She said she loves her job at Rothrock Drugs in Blytheville.

"He (Judge Nelson) did say he was going to replace Kelli," Burke said. "And I asked him why and he said it was because of the landfill discrepancy." 

In June, the county terminated Doris Christina Thorp after she allegedly stole more than $1,000, while working for the county landfill, though based out of the courthouse. Arkansas Legislative Audit contacted Judge Nelson after finding discrepancies in banking records. Burke said Judge Nelson told her that Jones should have been checking the bank statements.

Burke said she wanted to clear her name after reading comments from both White and Judge Nelson this week, noting she worked 38 years for the county and for five-county judges over that time, never receiving "a bad audit." She added when she retired, former justice Barry Ball suggested a resolution recognizing her service to the county over the years.

 "I don't know why they wanted to use me as their whipping boy," Burke said. "John Alan even made the comment that he laughed about it, that it was a running joke to threaten to bring me back like I'm the plague or something that they're going to bring in. It really hurt my feelings. The more I thought about it, the angrier I got." 

In White's letter to justices Bill Nelson, Molly Houseworth Jackson, Neil Burge and Rick Ash, he wrote that he could not work with Burke "due to the manner in which she has previously ran the Finance Office and then the way in which she just suddenly quit her job last time, leaving the County in a vulnerable position both in working for the County and working with law enforcement officials during the official investigation."

Burke said she told justices and fellow employees that if the late county judge Randy Carney was re-elected in November 2016, she would retire. He was and she did.

"It's not like I did anything illegal and the investigation going on is the one that I started," Burke said. "I was the person that went to them and said there's something going on here and you need to check it out." 

She added White had a different tone at the time.

"When I would say, I can't wait until this election is over with, he would say, 'I'm telling you right now, when you leave, I'm going with you,'" Burke said. "'We just can't run this county without you.'" 

Burke said she brought to light matters that would be investigated by the Arkansas State Police and the FBI, including large payments to Hollister Industrial, LLC and suspicious activities at the landfill. Second Judicial District prosecuting attorney Scott Ellington said back in November 2016 that "a review of disbursements revealed that the County paid $1,046,864 to Hollister Industrial, LLC, for the period October 2012 through February 2015."

Burke said when asked by auditors if she felt uncomfortable about anything, she told them about the Hollister payments, then authorities discovered the small Hollister office in Missouri could not make the repairs to equipment that were on the invoices.

"I was under all kinds of pressure," Burke said. "The judge (Randy Carney) was sending millions of dollars to Rick Mosley (Hollister)."

She said Carney demanded she overnight large checks to Hollister, even though there are no airports there. Burke said she was also getting invoices for heavy equipment without information like a VIN number.

She noted when she told Carney she needed the proper paperwork, he told her "cut the check or else." 

Burke pointed out issues out of her control with the hospital system and at the landfill led to the county being in poor financial condition.

She added the financial turnaround was helped by the court raising millage as high as it could before going before the voters and a significant increase in landfill tipping fees.

"I know I did say and do things that were really not Brenda," Burke said. "But I have meningioma; that's a tumor in the frontal lobe. That controls your personality a lot. There were times I would say and do things that I know were off the wall a little bit, but nothing was illegal about anything I said or did."