Business and Economy Liberty and Justice NewsTracker

Misleading Language in Employment Complaint Letters

Workers with employment grievances before the state Human Rights Commission were instructed to “do nothing” until the commission reached a decision in their case, a misleading statement that may have discouraged some workers form pursuing their cases through the courts, state auditors have found.

The commission issued letters to complainants telling them you “are to do nothing” until receiving a determination notice in the case, even though workers had the right to file lawsuits at any time within one year of their complaint, the recently released audit covering two years to September 2010 said.

The commission in its formal response said it did not agree with auditors and that investigators “frequently inform complainants about their options to file a lawsuit as opposed to continuing an investigation.” But the commission still removed the problematic “do nothing” language from its letters.

Auditors also found that the commission was prematurely submitting cases as closed, a violation of its contract with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The commission had failed to wait until after the 30-day appeal period before closing each case, based on a sample of cases over two years. The commission said it has since corrected the process.

Auditors also said the commission needed to maintain tighter controls to guard against falsified case information and to close housing cases more efficiently.

Education NewsTracker

Financial Disclosure Info Lacking on State Board of Education Members

Two state Board of Education members never filled out conflict-of-interest forms during their tenure, a review by the state comptroller’s office found, despite a board policy that requires disclosure to help guard against ethics lapses and ensure transparency.

In a review of disclosures submitted from 2006 through August 2009, auditors found that two members had not completed forms at all. One served for nine years without ever filling out a disclosure form.

The ethics forms are aimed at revealing whether board members or their families have financial stakes in companies licensed by the board or department.

The findings were detailed in a wide-ranging state audit of the state Board and Department of Education by the comptroller’s office. The audit criticized inspections of pre-K and other child care providers, poor handling of students’ identifying information that allowed some of it to be made public, and the process for verifying information submitted by local school districts.

In reviewing the board’s ethics forms, auditors found one form that was rendered useless because the signature was illegible, and there was no line on the form to print the filer’s name.

Auditors recommended the board require members and staff to complete the ethics forms on an annual basis and keep the forms on file for at least three years. In its response, the board agreed.

Other highlights:

  • In late 2008, a state contractor, Public Consulting Group, posted student data including dates of birth and Social Security numbers to a website that could be accessed via a Google search; in some cases, parents’ information was also made public. The data was removed about three months later, after a Metro Nashville Public Schools employee stumbled on the information. The audit says Public Consulting Group provided identity theft and credit monitoring services to the students and their parents, communicated the issue to the national credit bureaus, and implemented new policies to keep the problem from recurring. When news of the security breach broke in April 2009, a principal for the company expressed regret, telling WSMV Channel 4, “We take full responsibility for this incident, and we formally express our sincere apology to the students and parents of Metro Nashville Public Schools.”
  • Department staff were also faulted for poor control of personal information. Student names and Social Security numbers were included in two PowerPoint presentations available on the department website for about two years. Though one was removed immediately after auditors raised the issue, the second presentation was still available six months later. According to the audit, the department paid for credit monitoring services for the affected students and their families.
  • The department’s process for inspecting child care programs was weak, and recordkeeping was inconsistent, the audit found. Auditors became concerned after spot-checking files for three facilities kept at the central office in Nashville and finding that some inspection reports were missing in all three. They moved on to district offices, where they reviewed files for 110 programs and found inconsistencies in the forms and in the way they were filled out. Also puzzling were 10 annual inspection forms that were dated as completed on a weekend. According to the audit:

“The auditors questioned whether the inspections were as thorough as intended by the legislature. We also questioned certain activities in one field office. We referred our concerns to the appropriate staff at the Department of Education and submitted our work to the State Attorney General’s Office for further review.”

In its response, the department said it had developed new training and switched to an electronic system of inspections.

  • Auditors said the department should create a centralized system for verifying compliance information submitted by local school districts.
  • The board did not submit notices of vacancies to the Secretary of State for any of the seven board vacancies that occurred from 2006 to 2009, hindering the state from announcing open appointments, auditors found.
  • Auditors said the department should develop a formal plan to address teacher shortages. Even though the department responded to the criticism by producing a plan, staff later said that little had been done with it because of lack of funding. The plan apparently became obsolete before it could be used or implemented.
NewsTracker Tax and Budget

Audits Yield County-Level Overdrafts, Spending Abuses

A county official taking $92,000 in taxpayer funds for personal use. An overdraft of almost $12,000 in the solid waste account. And spending that exceeds available funds by $114,000.

That’s what state auditors have found so far in the most recent round of annual financial reviews of county governments in Tennessee, covering the 2009-10 fiscal year. And they’ve only gotten to 14 counties so far. Yep, that means they still have a ways to go before the whole state’s been given a look.

In Sevier County, former County Clerk Joe Keener II treated county funds like a private fun fund, according to audit findings dated Oct. 12. Keener resigned Aug. 30 after admitting that he had removed $92,334 from the office “for personal use,” the audit says.

“It appears a cash shortage existed during much of the period examined and that the clerk concealed the shortage by delaying deposits and using cash from current collections to deposit with checks and money orders from previous days collections. Although the clerk overrode existing internal control procedures to misappropriate the collections, other office personnel should have known of the existence of an excessive number of deposits in transit when reconciling bank statements at the end of each month.”

Auditors note that Keener made two personal deposits to pay the county back, and Keener apologized to the public in his resignation letter, The Mountain Press in Sevierville reported:

“I have acknowledged the situation and have now done everything in my ability to ensure that all funds are accounted for and properly deposited,” Keener wrote. “Now that I have accomplished this, I can resign knowing the office is in good hands.”

In Dickson County, auditors found an overdraft of $11,725 in the solid waste/sanitation fund as of the end of the fiscal year. They also found spending had exceeded appropriations in several instances, and that members of the Highway Commission were paid more than twice as much the amount allowable by law. Commission members were paid $75 per month, when the ceiling is $35, the Sept. 28 report notes.

And in Henderson County, officials spent $113,992 more than what was estimated to be available in a school projects fund, according to auditors’ Oct. 14 report.

Auditors also found that an employee had failed to return a $1,006 overpayment she received eight years ago and that an employee recognition program lacked documentation. Employees of the school department get gift cards for perfect attendance, which costs the Henderson County School Department about $25,000 a year, according to the report. But officials failed to properly document which school employees received gift cards, and both the employees and the school system should have paid payroll taxes on the cards, auditors said.

Audits can be a treasure trove for government watchdogs and curious citizens, and the public can sign up for updates from the state comptroller, which houses the Division of Audit, via e-mail or follow via Twitter.

More reading:

The Mountain Press on the Sevier County state audit, which is viewable here.

The Dickson Herald on that county’s audit, viewable here.