Monday, September 06, 2010

September 6, 2010 The State Comptroller Requests Explanations from the City and the City Auditors about Violations of State Law and Problems with 2009 Audit

The above letter to the Mayor and City Council from the State Comptroller's Office was one item briefly discussed at the Council's August 2010 "retreat" in Johnson City. Audits and cozy auditors and conflicts of interest.

I have maintained for a long time that the City of Morristown should get a fresh set of auditing eyes to perform its annual audits. This 5-page letter (click each page to enlarge, read, or print out) from the State Comptroller's Office provides more proof that new eyes are needed. In addition, the GFOA reommends that auditors be changed periodically as a "best practice."

In the 2009 City audit, the Comptroller points out that certain figures don't match up. Lowland Wastewater debt was taken on for 25 years without approval from the Comptroller's Division of State and Local Finance. MUS loans to the telecom fibernet system were also apparently not approved in advance by the Division of State and Local Finance.

Lots of problems with reporting requirements and reported amounts that don't agree. Improper categories. Grant reporting is questioned.

Notes to the financial statements did not include or had incomplete disclosures. And on and on.

There may be explanations for some of the questioned items and some may be the result of mistakes. But there is no doubt that the auditors knew or should have known that "loans" from one fund to another required city council AND state approval. There is no doubt that the auditors knew in recent years that the City was in poor financial shape but failed to call specific attention to this.

Apparently, the auditors thought that if the City could figure it out, OK.  And if the City didn't bother to look at the audits (which is what happened) or couldn't figure it out, then the auditors could say "No, I didn't point out that you were broke or making illegal loans/transfers, but it was in the audit." Sort of like your doctor giving you a blood test and handing you the results to figure out for yourself--even though he knows that you have a specific disease that needs immediate treatment.

Besides the quality and accuracy of the 2009 audit and the failure of the local auditors to disclose the illegal loans and transfers and switching of money, one has to consider the coziness of the auditors (Craine, Thompson & Jones) with the entity (City of Morristown) that they are auditing.

The auditors are local businessmen who have failed repeatedly in recent audits to report that the City was violating state law in swapping/loaning money from fund to fund without a vote from City Council and without obtaining the required approval of the Comptroller's Division of State and Local Finance. The state is pointing out numerous problems by just looking at the 2009 audit. There is no telling what a true detailed examination of the city's books for the year 2009 (Former City Adm. Jim Crumley's last full year) would show or what a thorough look at prior audits would show.

The current auditors (Craine, Thompson & Jones) have been the city's sole auditing firm for about three decades. The local auditors claim that they perform an "independent" audit of the City. However, the fact that the auditors are local business people who have very strong social and economic ties to the same organizations, clubs, churches, sports groups, business groups (Chamber and Industrial Board), and schools as do the individuals (City Administrator, Mayor, City  Council) who represent the City of Morristown creates an  obvious "independence" problem. It may be an "independent" audit from the auditors' technical  perspective, but ethically and in a world of common sense, it's not "independent."  The auditors are aware of "independence" questions, and but they have atempted to explain away their involvement and knowledge of illegal loans/transfers between funds, putting all blame on Crumley AFTER Crumley was fired. Click here to see a copy of the auditor's e-mail message sent to Interim Administrator Lynn Wampler many months AFTER Crumley was fired.

It's not bad that the auditors belong to the same groups and organizations as do Morristown city officials. However, true auditing "independence" is questionable when strong social and economic ties exist between auditor and auditee and when the auditors have already been shown to have failed to call attention to violations of state law by the City and dire financial problems in City government.

Another new "independence" problem has arisen recently because members of the auditing firm apparently have about a 1/3 interest in an entity (Millennium Square Partners) that is receiving $890,000 from the City through a grant. Who/what auditor is going to bite the hand that is feeding it $890,000? Who/what auditor is going to point out the poor financial status of the City or violations of state law by the very people (City officials) who have just given you $890,000? In next year's City audit (FY 2011), the auditors will be auditing their own $890,000 grant!

This potential conflict of the auditors as recipient of an $890,000 grant was discussed briefly when the City was voting on whether to hire new auditors or renew its audit contract with Craine, Thompson & Jones. One of the local auditors who was present at that meeting, Tom Jones, told the City Council that there was no conflict and that the auditors only had a very small interest in Millennium Square Partnership.  Apparently, however, members of the auditing firm have as large an interest as anyone else (David and Tim Wild) in the Millennium Partnership and have a larger interest than the other two remaining members of the Millennium Partnership--Dr. Sidney Boyd and William (Bill) Young).

I guess it all depends on what the meaning of a "small interest" is and it all depends on the meaning/ interpretation of true auditor "independence."

The City needs fresh eyes looking at its financial reports. The current auditors have contributed directly or indirectly to continual violations of state law by their failure to report violations and by their willingness to let these violations slide by.  The City needs to follow accounting best practices, hire outside auditors, and then rotate auditors at least every five years.

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