State Auditor Gary Jones hit the ground running – and hasn’t let up
Published: January 24th, 2013
OKLAHOMA CITY — State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones, a Republican who took office after the 2010 election, is only the second member of his party to serve in the critical state agency. He says he is taking seriously the view that his job is to be a kind of “watchdog” of state resources.
His scrutiny of Oklahoma City’s EMSA management, detailed in a previous story, is drawing the praise of Democratic legislators, while his tough scrutiny of pricey state agencies is gaining the plaudits of fellow conservatives.
Wasteful spending for Education Department events
In special investigative audits of the state Department of Education — finding waste and abuse (but not fraud) — Jones has critiqued fundraising operations administered by both current Schools Superintendent Janet Barresi, a Republican, and her predecessor Sandy Garrett, a Democrat.
In the case of Garrett, he characterized as “slush funds” two secret Education Department bank accounts that funneled, over 10 years, more than $2.3 million to a private non-profit. The funds in both administrations were used for annual statewide conferences for educators and school administrators.
The Barresi administration established a similar program, but sought legislative changes allowing her authority to organize and host the annual conference.
In both administrations, “state employees were utilized to solicit funds on behalf of the non-profit while on state time. State offices, computers and email accounts were utilized to conduct the work of the non-profits,” Jones concluded.
He continued, “Our issue isn’t about the value of hosting conferences for educators. The extravagance spent on alcohol, ice sculptures, high-dollar hors d’oeuvres and other things are a waste of state funds. We also take issue with the suggestion that ‘no state funds were expended on the conferences.’ Our position is that all funds, received by the state, are state funds. The distinction of the term is not restricted to appropriated dollars.” (emphasis in his report)
He continued, “In the 2011 conference, OSDE had to settle an unpaid balance of $15,000 from its own accounts because of a shortage in dollars collected from donations and vendor fees for booth rental.”
Local stuff: a little here and there, and pretty soon it’s good government
While the auditor & inspector’s office holds specific constitutional authority for many state-level functions, it has statutory powers to require timely county audits, respond to citizen activist petitions and fulfill local government requests for audits.
Several investigative audits have been performed, flowing from either citizen petitioning or from the requests of District Attorneys or local officials.
One citizen petition request came from the town of Bernice, where clear violations of the Open Records and Open Meetings Acts were found. No prosecutions have followed, thus far.
Audits are underway or have been requested in Miami, Elk City, Glenpool, Dewar, Beaver, Rock Island, Spencer, Healdton, New Cordell and Woodward.
Additionally, there are three instances in which law enforcement has brought charges as a result of Jones’ findings, touching the sheriff’s offices in Craig and Grant Counties, and a special fund in the Carter County District Attorney’s office. Those cases are still pending.
County audits catch up as officials “get it”
As for a backlog in county audits that was a theme of his 2010 campaign, when Jones took the oath of office, only 25 of the state’s 77 counties were compliant with standing audit requirements.
Today, he says, 67 counties are “fully compliant,” and the agency projects every county will be on track by the end of the fiscal year on June 30.
Jones said the agency had to press some counties into compliance, due to reluctance based in an attitude he characterized as “we’ve always done it that way.” Some were using outdated audit measurements, but Jones said at this month’s briefing for Capitol reporters that, after some initial reluctance and foot-dragging, county officials across the state now “get it.”
FEMA issues in the county audits
Jones told CapitolBeatOK that elimination of the county backlog has identified problems with expenditures and documentation, particularly in the area of county-level expenditures of FEMA funds following natural disasters.
At the time the audits were conducted, Jones said this week, his teams made “multiple attempts” to request documentation that work on FEMA projects actually occurred – but that information in several instances was not forthcoming.
He observed, “Ultimately, the County Commissioners in almost every county with questionable costs signed off on our finding(s), their deficient documentation and none have challenged the audit reports regarding the districts’ error or oversight in maintaining adequate documentation.”
He continued, “The risk for each county with findings of deficient or non-existent documentation is that FEMA has the authority to demand repayment of the federal funds. Kay County is currently working with FEMA to improve its reporting procedures to avoid having to pay back more than $100,000 in federal funds.”
Jones establishes substantive record, in job for which he fought
Jones is establishing a substantive, independent and non-partisan track record. His performance and outreach led former Auditor Burrage, his 2010 foe, to support several of Jones’ suggestions for agency empowerment.
That includes the Republican’s request for “greater clarity” in state law concerning authority for the office of Auditor & Inspector to conduct performance audits and other regular accountings of government agencies.
In an interview, Auditor Jones explained his approach to the audit process, and the impact of the county “catch-up,” saying:
“An audit, in itself, reports on the record keeping and transparency of a public entity and it serves as a tool to assist it in developing policies and practices to enable better accountability to taxpayers.”
Concerning misappropriation of money in government, Jones complimented some agencies, saying, “White collar crime is messy, it’s convoluted, and it is also preventable. Many public entities are doing a great job in protecting public assets because they have implemented and are actually practicing an effective system of checks and balances to reduce risk.”
Jones worked hard to land the elective job, twice losing narrowly to McMahan. Burrage, appointed to replace his fellow Democrat after he was convicted of accepting a bribe, was professional in office, but Jones in 2010 won easily with pragmatic campaign themes, including the audit backlog.
A former state Republican party chairman, Jones has tapped the “red state” tide in Oklahoma. Still, he has reached out to legislative Democrats, despite their distinct minority status, and says the auditor’s job is “neither Republican nor Democrat.”