Hollingsworth says ‘overcharge,’ payback easily explained

Pine Bluff mayoral candidate Debe Hollingsworth said Wednesday that she had an “easy explanation” to reimbursement of gasoline overcharges to the Jefferson County government on purchases it made from Hoover Oil Co. between Jan. 1, 2001, and Feb. 28, 2004.

Hollingsworth, who said she and two of her four children were directing the company at the time, detailed the matter in an interview at The Commercial while accompanied by her husband, Jack Hollingsworth Jr., and campaign manager, Ben Trevino.

The overcharges — estimated at $36,105 but projected to be “probably more” — were addressed in an Arkansas Division of Legislative Audit report June 30, 2007. The audit was performed in connection with an Arkansas State Police investigation concerning allegations of “conflict of interest and related party transactions” involving former county judge Jack Jones. A daughter of Hollingsworth is married to a son of Jones and both were Hoover employees during the period.

“Hoover Oil’s bids did not include a 1-percent early payment discount we received from our supplier,” she said. “When the audit began, we were told by the auditor that the early pay discount should go to the county, because the county wanted to keep the early pay discount Hoover Oil had received for having paid (its supplier) within 10 days of order. But the problem we had with that was that we were paying our supplier quicker than the county was paying us.

“The $36,105 represented the disputed amount,” she continued. “We were never supplied with any support to their calculations.”

No charges related to the Hoover transactions were filed. The purpose of the audit was to “review over 60 allegations provided by ASP” and “transactions involving the county and (Jones)” with various individuals and interests.

Hollingsworth, who said she had never seen the audit, denied purposely overcharging the county and stated that the company made reimbursement “because that was the best” of two options. “Our options were to pay the amount or go to court,” she said. “Additional audit and legal bills to dispute the amount would have cost our company an estimated $50,000. Therefore, we paid the amount. There was no wrong-doing on our part.”

According to the audit, Hoover “overstated” its supplier’s cost per premium-grade gallon on invoices submitted to the county. The company provided the lowest of competitive bids to obtain the county’s fuel business. Hollingsworth termed the overcharge accusation as “a misunderstanding.”

Hollingsworth also provided some details on her work history and educational background, which had been brought into question. She said she had earned “like an associate’s degree” from the now-defunct Melton School of Business in Jonesboro. The Commercial verified the existence of the school, which was independent of Arkansas State University. Hollingsworth said she attended ASU for two years, but did not receive a degree there.

She said she was “happy” to respond to the query. “I consider this an opportunity to show that I’m sincere in the promise I’ve made in my campaign to be open, honest and transparent if I’m elected mayor,” she said. “I’ll be the same with the public and news media.”