Former Routt County Treasurer’s Office employee accuses leaders of unethical conduct prior to dismissal
The employee who Routt County Treasurer Brita Horn claims made a $5.8 million error that deprived local taxing entities of millions of dollars worth of their revenue for more than two months is speaking out and contesting her recent dismissal from the county.
Rani Gilbert, who was fired from the treasurer’s office in July for reasons unrelated to the property tax error, said she thinks Horn is wrongly blaming her for the mistake.
“I just want the people of my community to understand she has convicted me of something I did not do,” Gilbert said. “I’ve gone way out of my way to do the very best I can for Routt County.”
Gilbert also revealed this week she had her attorney send a letter to the county commissioners less than two weeks prior to her dismissal alleging Horn and her chief deputy treasurer Patrick Karschner engaged in unethical and possibly illegal behavior this summer.
Gilbert’s complaint against her supervisors specifically alleged she had evidence that Karschner had been working on Horn’s campaign for state treasurer during business hours in May in violation of county policies.
Horn and Karschner denied that claim Wednesday. They also said they were not aware of the complaint prior to commencing pre-dismissal proceedings against Gilbert.
“Absolutely not,” Horn responded when asked if anyone in her office had spent any time working on a political campaign.
In a wide-ranging interview Tuesday, Gilbert said she thinks the property tax distribution error occurred because of poor supervision from Horn and Karschner, whose job description lists distribution of taxes to districts as one of his primary responsibilities.
Gilbert also described a work environment where she claimed employees lacked proper training and support, and she claimed the two current supervisors didn’t show an interest in learning the frontline functions of the office, including the property tax distributions.
“Neither of the supervisors in that department have enough experience to actually be good supervisors,” Gilbert said. “Neither one of them know the functions. They can’t help you. If they can’t help you, you can’t get help from either of them.”
Gilbert started working for the county in 2012.
In a separate interview on Wednesday, Karschner and Horn described a very different working environment where there is an open door policy and cross-training efforts underway despite resistance from some employees.
“There is a supervisor here, and there’s enormous interest in making sure our I’s are dotted and our T’s are crossed,” Horn said.
Horn also stressed that the office had been understaffed, and she made process changes and installed checks and balances when she arrived.
A $5.8M mistake
The tax error occurred in early May as the treasurer’s office performed its monthly task of sending millions of dollars worth of tax revenue out to the entities that receive it.
Gilbert said Karschner was working directly with her on the property tax distribution process and formulating a how-to guide when the error occurred in early May.
At times, both employees were using the same computer, Gilbert said.
Gilbert thinks Karschner and Horn, not herself, ultimately deserve the blame for the error.
Asked about his role in the property tax distribution that was bungled, Karschner paused and looked at Horn before she started answering the question for him.
“We were doing cross-training that day,” Horn said.
She said employees were taking screenshots of every step of the distribution process.
Karschner acknowledged he was part of the distribution and was using the same computer as Gilbert. But he said he wasn’t responsible for making the mistake.
“The distribution was still the responsibility of the bookkeeper (Gilbert),” Horn said.
Karschner said Gilbert was the only person in the office trained to use the tax distribution software at the time of the error.
The mistake was eventually corrected in late July, and all of the taxing entities were made whole. They also received interest that had accrued while the funds were sitting in interest-bearing accounts.
Gilbert is refuting Horn’s specific claim that Gilbert overrode a software default and caused the error. She said she doesn’t recall doing such a thing, and called on Horn to provide proof.
In treasurer’s office emails Steamboat Today obtained Wednesday through an open records request, a representative from the tax distribution software told Horn he “could not tell how staff processed the distribution and what balancing processes were followed.”
But citing a deliberative process exemption, Horn redacted a large part of the email from the software company that she said outlined recommendations for how to avoid the problem in the future.
Gilbert on Tuesday revealed another apparently undisclosed tax distribution error that occurred in the treasurer’s office sometime in April that resulted in the city of Steamboat Springs not receiving tens of thousands of dollars of March motor vehicle use tax revenue on time.
The city’s finance staff confirmed Tuesday the error occurred, and the funds were distributed the next month after the city contacted the treasurer’s office.
Horn and Karschner said they weren’t aware of this error on Wednesday morning and couldn’t explain how it occurred.
Horn said she’d have to do some research to answer specific questions about that error.
Gilbert claimed the error occurred while she was out of town in Arizona.
Map on a desk
Before Gilbert was identified as the employee Horn claims made the tax mistake, Gilbert had sent a letter alleging misconduct by Horn and Karschner.
In the letter, which was sent less than two weeks before her dismissal, Gilbert’s attorney claimed that Gilbert had evidence that Karschner was working on Horn’s campaign for state treasurer while he was on the clock in the office on May 4.
The attorney also wrote that Gilbert was concerned she might be terminated if it was known she had provided the information to the commissioners.
A photo provided to Steamboat Today by Gilbert shows a large Routt County voter precinct map on Karschner’s desk that had numbers handwritten inside of each voting district.
The map had a pen on top of it and was placed next to a large spreadsheet.
“There’s no reason for those maps to be in the treasurer’s office, and he worked on them all day long,” Gilbert said.
Karschner and Horn denied that anyone in the treasurer’s office has worked on her political campaign.
Asked why the map was on his desk, Karschner said Wednesday he was using it outside of work hours to determine what voting district he lived in.
“I had recently moved west of the city, and I was interested in finding out what precinct I was living in,” he said.
Asked why several numbers had been written on each precinct on the map, he said he became curious to find out how many voters and households were in each district.
“I wasn’t working on anything during work hours,” he said. “Unequivocally, it was for personal reasons.”
Gilbert is currently contesting her termination and the reasons behind it.
In addition to a claim she improperly provided someone access to a tax lien and put a wrong name on a receipt, Gilbert said the cited reasons for her dismissal now also includes the property tax mistake.
Gilbert will make her case against her firing Monday at a private grievance hearing.
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around Steamboat and Routt County make the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
User Legend: Moderator Trusted User
The pandemic is wearing on a lot of people, especially frontline health care workers like Whittany Keating, a registered nurse at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs.