Taxpayer money went to family business

Michelle Lancaster, recently promoted as Mecklenburg County's general manager, spent more than $16,000 in taxpayer money on furniture and interior design consulting at her parents' interior design company.

Acting on a tip, WCNC NewsChannel 36 requested invoices sent by the company, Designs of Distinction Inc., through the Open Records Act. Those invoices detailed three purchases from May 2006 to January 2007, totaling $16,798.48.

The invoices show the company is owned by Mike and Debra Lancaster, identified by a county spokesman as the father and stepmother of Michelle Lancaster.

County Manager Harry Jones took responsibility for the error. He said Lancaster had not been promoted to her current position when the purchases were made, but she did participate in the purchase decisions.

“I'm not going to say to you … it was a bad decision that we made to choose her stepmother to do this job because it leaves the impression … that it's favoritism toward her stepmother,” Jones said.

“If I had to do it all over again, we would choose a different firm.”

The furniture – including a leather captain's chair and occasional table – was placed in Jones' office through a no-bid process. “This is a professional services contract, so there's not a bid process,” Jones said.

Another captain's chair went to the office of Mecklenburg County Commissioners chairman Jennifer Roberts.

“Can't take the furniture back – it's already been used,” Roberts said.

“But we are certainly going to make sure it doesn't happen again.”