Fired Swain DSS director steered aid to relatives

fr cagleA wrongful firing suit by Tammy Cagle, the former director of Swain County Department of Social Services, has shed light on a series of unorthodox payments funneled to Cagle’s family members for social assistance.


Cagle personally steered the monetary benefits through the system for her relatives, deviating from the normal protocols and application process for people seeking aid.

The Smoky Mountain News recently obtained the case file for Cagle’s wrongful firing appeal, which was finally ruled on late last year by the N.C. Office of Administrative Hearings.

It contained telling and previously unpublicized records surrounding the reasons for Cagle’s dismissal — namely nine social assistance payments Cagle shepherded through the system on behalf of family members and a tenant who was renting a trailer she owned.

The Swain DSS board called for an outside review in spring 2011 of the assistance benefits Cagle had helped her relatives obtain over an 18-month period. The review, by a Work First program consultant, concluded “there were incongruities” in how the payments were issued and suggested further investigation was warranted.

“The handling of these has been done out of the normal way of conducting eligibility business in the Work First Program. There are more questions that may need an answer and they are outside the scope of my duties,” according to the Work First consultant who did the audit.

Findings include:

• Cagle personally signed off on some of the benefits, which was atypical. Benefits are usually processed and approved by lower-level program staff, not the director of the agency.

• In three cases, there was no record of an application being submitted or eligibility being vetted, yet payments were approved.

• In some cases, Cagle instructed lower-level staff to issue the benefits without proper documentation, which was also atypical. Benefits are supposed to be awarded based on objective criteria measured and weighed by staff.

• In some cases, Cagle filled out the applications on family members’ behalf or instructed staff to fill out the applications on their behalf. The applicants did not appear to make their own applications.


Red flags

The consultant investigating the payments said in general, the people receiving assistance appeared to qualify where criteria applied. But the report wasn’t without red flags.

The most questionable irregularity was an application where Cagle signed her daughter’s name for her.

“A man or woman on the street would not be allowed to sign another person’s name,” the audit report stated in admonishment of the protocol violation.

Further, Cagle did not make any kind of notation that she had signed it on her daughter’s behalf, such as putting her own initials near the signature.

Another red flag in the audit report: Cagle tapped domestic violence funds to help her daughter get heating assistance, without sufficiently explaining her daughter’s domestic violence plight.

Cagle’s daughter had gotten a restraining order against her ex-partner eight months prior, but that alone would not qualify her for domestic violence assistance funds, according to the audit report.

“There was little explanation of the domestic violence that was currently going on. There was no evidence in the record of continuing violence or of issues with PTSD that could be problematic eight months later. This evidence would be crucial in determining the appropriateness of using Domestic Violence funding for a gas bill,” the Work First consultant stated in her report.

In addition to family members, Cagle routinely secured benefits on behalf of a woman who was renting a trailer that Cagle owned. 

Once, Cagle applied for rental assistance on the woman’s behalf when she got behind on her rent. 

The woman never visited DSS nor spoke to a caseworker to request the rental assistance herself. Instead, Cagle put together the application for the tenant, returning with it signed, along with a photo ID on loan from the woman.

Cagle also brought in a written statement from her daughter, asserting that the daughter, rather than Cagle, was the landlord for the trailer Cagle owned. A rent check for $400 was then made out to Cagle’s daughter.

Cagle also applied for heat assistance for the woman who was renting her trailer. The propane account for the trailer was actually listed in Cagle’s name, since she was the property owner. Cagle signed off on assistance checks that were paid toward the propane account in her own name, but technically on behalf of the tenant living in the trailer.

Once, Cagle tapped social assistance funds to pay for a service call at the rental trailer when the carbon monoxide alarm went off. The gas company issued a bill for the service call to Cagle, since the propane account for the trailer was in Cagle’s name.

No formal application for assistance was filed. Cagle simply signed off on funds to cover the bill.

In Cagle’s wrongful firing case, she admitted some of the procedures were “apparent departures from standard procedure.” But the benefits were not improper or illegal, she contended.

The audit found the payments were paid out of assistance funds that either had no eligibility criteria, or if there were criteria, the applicant would have qualified.

The audit report stated that it was unusual for a DSS director to usher a family member’s application through the system or to complete the paperwork on their behalf.

“The best path would be that the applicants came into the office seeking help as would any Swain County citizen. It appeared in all instances except one the applicants did not appear in the Swain County DSS offices,” according to audit report.


Records unsealed

The Smoky Mountain News first reported three years ago that three of Cagle’s relatives had tapped social assistance funds while she was at the helm of the county DSS. The article named only one of them, Cagle’s uncle Steve Moon, who is also a Swain County commissioner.

But the article did not say how much he got, the identity of the other two relatives or the amounts they received. Records of who gets social service benefits and for how much are confidential.

Those records ultimately came out during Cagle’s wrongful firing case, however. Cagle’s unorthodox approval of the payments was cited as a main reason for her firing, and were thus outlined in the case file.

• Cagle applied for or signed off on payments totaling $706 on behalf of her two daughters for heat and food.

• Cagle also marshaled through $318 in payments for her uncle after his house burned.

• Cagle helped a woman renting a trailer from her get $687 in heating assistance, which was paid into a gas account listed in Cagle’s name. Cagle also helped the woman get $400 to pay rent on the trailer Cagle owned. The woman was a single mom with a low-paying job, according to the applications by Cagle.

In some cases, Cagle signed off on the benefits herself. But several times, Cagle instructed employees to fill out the applications or to approve the payments.

When interviewed by the consultant who conducted the review, one employee said “it made her uneasy” but she did as she was told.

Another employee, Talmadge Jones, who was second in command at DSS at the time, said “it made him feel uncomfortable, but acted as the director requested,” according to the consultant’s report. 


Been there, done that

The payments issued to Cagle’s relatives had initially come to the attention of the DSS board in fall 2010. The DSS board at the time issued a mild admonishment, mostly just telling Cagle not to help family members with applications in the future.

The board discussed the issue as a confidential personnel matter in closed session during an October 2010 board meeting. Following the discussion, the board announced that Cagle had done nothing wrong and even passed a resolution affirming “full support” for Cagle, according to the meeting minutes.

However, the DSS board promptly passed a new conflict of interest policy prohibiting the director from approving assistance for family members, from signing their benefit checks or otherwise being involved in the decision-making process for assistance involving family members. It further states that family members of the director must apply through the same outlets and follow the same protocol as the general public.

In her wrongful firing suit, Cagle pointed out that she had previously been cleared of any impropriety by the DSS board, and it wasn’t fair to have the issue dredged up again and used against her six months later.

But a lot had changed in those six months, including the appointment of a new DSS board. Allegations of a DSS cover-up following the suspicious death of a toddler — and a subsequent SBI investigation — had led to loss of public trust and confidence in DSS. County commissioners had called on the sitting DSS board members at the time to resign, clearing the way for an all-new board to be appointed.

Despite being “cleared” by the old DSS board, the new DSS board apparently wasn’t OK with how Cagle helped process benefits for family members. Cagle cried foul in her wrongful firing suit, however, citing her otherwise stellar personnel file.

“[Cagle] was being punished for events taking place some time ago, and for which she was ‘cleared’ by the former DSS board,” Cagle’s attorney stated in written arguments.


Payment rundown

The payments received by Cagle’s family members were made between January 2009 and September 2010. The individual payments, as outlined in the auditor’s report, included:

• $75 for food and gas for one of Cagle’s daughters. Cagle instructed a DSS employee to fill out an application on her daughter’s behalf. Cagle said she would get her daughter’s signature at a later time.

• $146 in heat assistance for Cagle’s daughter, who was living in a trailer owned by Cagle. A check was cut directly to a propane company to pay off an account listed jointly in Cagle’s name, as the property owner, and her daughter’s name, as the tenant. No application was found on file. 

• $485 in heating assistance for Cagle’s daughter, who was still living in Cagle’s trailer. An application existed this time, but Cagle had signed her daughter’s name on her daughter’s behalf. The auditor’s report said it was not legal for Cagle to sign her daughter’s name to the assistance application. The check was again made out to the propane company for the account listed jointly in the Cagles’ name.

In making the payment request, Cagle said that her daughter was a domestic violence victim, citing a restraining order that had been filed against her ex-partner eight months earlier.

The auditor’s report flagged the use of domestic violence funds in this case as questionable given the lack of explanation, however. 

• $400 in rent assistance for a woman who was renting Cagle’s trailer. The woman renting the trailer was behind on rent. Cagle put together the application herself, including hand-delivering the application to the woman and bringing it back to the office filled out. This was flagged as highly abnormal for the director of the agency, or even a rank-and-file social worker, to shuttle assistance applications around town.

Although Cagle owned the rental trailer, she claimed that her daughter was technically the landlord and was the one renting it out. Cagle’s daughter never came to the DSS office either, but Cagle brought in a statement from her daughter asserting she was the landlord. The rent assistance check was made out to Cagle’s daughter as the landlord. Cagle’s daughter cashed the check upon receiving it.

• $277 in heat assistance for the woman renting Cagle’s trailer. Cagle signed off on the payment herself. A check was made out to gas company, but since Cagle owned the trailer, the propane account was listed jointly in her own name along with the renter’s name.

• $80 for a service call after the carbon monoxide alarm was triggered at a rental trailer Cagle owned. The woman renting Cagle’s trailer apparently called the gas company when the carbon monoxide alarm went off. A $75 bill for the service call was issued in Cagle’s name by the gas company. Cagle sought benefits to cover the service call on behalf of the tenant. No application was on file. Cagle signed off on the check herself.

 • $380 in heat assistance for a woman renting a trailer Cagle owned. Cagle approved the payment and signed the check to the gas company for propane to be delivered to the trailer she rented out. There was no application on file for the assistance, however, and no narrative record of an application being submitted orally.

• $123 for Steve Moon, a Swain County commissioner and Cagle’s uncle, for the power reconnection fee for his residence following a house fire. The application was not signed by Moon but had a note attached saying that Cagle had approved it. Cagle had instructed a DSS employee to fill out an application on her uncle’s behalf. Cagle said she would take it to him to sign at a later date, but apparently she never did.

Moon owns a tire shop. His wife worked full-time for the school system, plus got bi-annual per capita checks for being an enrolled member of the Cherokee tribe. They had no children under 18 living with them as dependents at the time.

• $195 for Steve Moon, a Swain County commissioner and Cagle’s uncle, to buy food after his home was destroyed in a fire.

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