First audit finds problems at campaign finance agency

The state agency responsible for dispensing millions of dollars in public grants for candidates to finance their campaigns received a harsh audit last week.

State Auditor Robert G. Jaekle said several findings in the 15-page audit of the State Elections Enforcement Commission are common, but three critiques stand out.

Among other things, the auditors found that nearly $200,000 in expenses for equipment or services lacked documentation.

In a review of 25 expenditures during the first three fiscal years of the campaign finance system, SEEC did not have the proper receipts and paperwork on two occasions, or 8 percent of the time.

The state paid $192,261 to a private contractor for information technology, and no SEEC supervisor approved the purchase or verified that the amount billed represented services rendered, according to the audit.

“That is uncommon,” Jaekle said. “It is possible the state paid much more than what it actually got.”

The SEEC had weeks to produce the documents to prove they were accurately billed, he said.

The state also paid $4,190 for electronic data equipment but only had receipts for $599 worth of equipment.

“We found the agency paid for something and did not check what they were being billed for,” Jaekle said. “They might have paid for something they didn’t get. I’m am not saying that’s what happened, but it opens the door to questions when the proper documentation is not there.”

Another uncommon critique is an agency policy that allowed managers to work an alternate work schedule, different from the 40 hours over five days required by state law. For example, managers were being allowed to work four days in one week as long as the 40 hours were completed.

“That is unique and it’s not permitted,” said Jaekle. “It’s hard to track hours worked if someone is allowed to come in and leave at different times every day. It could mean they are getting credit for hours not worked.”

This is the first state audit of the SEEC since the inauguration of the state’s public campaign finance system in 2005. The good news for the agency is there were no criticisms of the grants being awarded to candidates, which is where the agency spends the bulk of its money. That doesn’t mean there weren’t some discrepancies. It just means they weren’t any in the small sample the state auditors reviewed. The SEEC also has a comprehensive auditing system to review grants paid.

The agency has $38.5 million cash on hand as of May 30 to spend on grants for the upcoming election cycle. Additionally, the administration side has a $5.1 million budget for its 53 workers and other expenses this year.

Nancy Nicolescu, spokeswoman for the SEEC, said all the problems outlined in the audit have been addressed and solved.

“Yes, it’s fixed,” she said. “The SEEC has implemented the appropriate protocols necessary to validate the receipts of services… before the disbursement of state funds.”

The agency has also hired a new fiscal administrative manager “to ensure the agency is fully compliant,” she said.

David Barry, who was previously in the fiscal office at the Department of Corrections, was hired three months ago.

The SEEC also has a new executive director – Albert Lenge – since the audit was completed, replacing retired Jeffrey B. Garfield.

State legislators were quick to defend the SEEC.

“They’ve come light years since the time this audit began,” Sen. Gayle S. Slossberg, D-Milford, co-chairwoman of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, said.

The fact that this was the first audit to be released in more than four years does worry Slossberg though. There is no date set for when the next audit will be completed, but Jaekle said he expects it to be at least two years, but probably closer to three years.

“I think that it’s something worth talking about if we are doing audits enough,” Slossberg said. “I think the accountability should be there. But if it’s just a duplication or redundant that may not yield us any different results then I am not sure it’s needed.”

Larger offices, such as the comptroller’s office and the Department of Social Services, do have annual audits.

“We have two options; look at the procedures to make sure the recommendations in the audit are being made or you start to ask the question if one agency should be handling all of the administrative work regarding receipts. …That might be a policy worth pursuing,” Slossberg said.