An audit released Monday reveals that the East Baton Rouge Parish Clerk of Court’s Office spent $102 in public funds daily on going out to eat in 2015 while the office was running a deficit.
Spending in the Clerk of Court’s office has been the subject of several articles in The Advocate since October. Clerk Doug Welborn’s office has routinely spent tens of thousands of public dollars annually on meals, hotel rooms, storage space and more for years.
The new audit sharpens some of the details of the clerk’s spending at places such as the Hollywood Casino buffet and Twin Peaks. It says the office shelled out $25,590 on 197 meals in 2015 alone.
“Assuming 250 work days in fiscal year 2015, the Clerk spent an average of $102 per work day, which does not appear to be a reasonable use of public funds,” reads the audit performed by Lafayette-based Kolder, Champagne, Slaven & Co., LLC. “The Clerk should consider substantially reducing the amount of public funds expended on meals in the future.”
The Legislative Auditor’s Office said the audit’s findings were turned over to District Attorney Hillar Moore III. Moore said he has not yet received the audit and “has no knowledge of it.”
“When we get it, we will take a look at it, review it and see if they claim any criminal violations are made,” Moore said. He said he would meet with Welborn if the audit outlined criminal activity.
The Legislative Auditor’s Office said in November that the Inspector General’s Office, which scrutinizes white-collar crime and public corruption, was investigating the clerk’s spending.
Greg Phares, the chief investigator for the state’s Inspector General’s Office, said Monday that he could not comment on an investigation or on the audit.
Welborn said in a statement on Monday that the office had changed its ways by cutting back on expenses like meals. Fred Sliman, Clerk’s Office spokesman, had previously defended the office’s spending patterns because of clean audits in the past that deemed them “legitimate and permissible business expenses.”
“Several months before our last fiscal year ended in June of 2015, I made the decision to end virtually all meal-related business meetings,” Welborn said in the statement Monday. “Though these meetings had a legitimate business purpose and were documented as such, as we explored areas in which to reduce expenditures, this was among the first that we completed.”
The new audit says the Clerk’s Office significantly dropped the number of meals — and the amount of money being paid for them — from May through December. In that period, meal spending averaged around $12.79 a day.
In addition to the use of public funds on meals, the audit also identified a handful of other spending problems in the Clerk’s Office. Welborn said in his statement that he asked the Legislative Auditor’s Office to work with the Clerk’s Office on a review of their procedures.
The office could not locate 86 receipts that accounted for $8,224 in purchases last year. Welborn believed the receipts were originally filed with their statements but had since gone missing, the audit said.
Most of the money was accounted for through past files and vendor receipts, except 25 receipts for $450.
“Even though the Clerk is confident that the proper documentation for these missing items was present at one time, he has asked for and received reimbursements from the cardholder on whose card the missing receipts were charged, less $15.43 charged by a former employee,” the audit reads.
The Clerk’s Office also had seven credit cards being used by employees in 2015, which the auditors said “increased the potential for abuse and fraud.” The number of credit cards has since dropped to two, with Welborn using one and the other being held in the clerk’s administrative accounting office.
The audit also said the Clerk’s Office needs to cut expenses and increase revenues because it ran a $1.3 million deficit in 2015 and a $1.9 million deficit in 2014. Payroll and benefits made up 88 percent of the expenses.
Welborn laid off 12 employees last month, some of whom claimed the office had too much spending and mismanagement of money.
The audit said Welborn has eliminated 15 positions from his office and has not replaced three employees who retired at the end of 2015. The layoffs and retirements should generate a $1.14 million in payroll and benefits savings, the audit says.
“Recent reductions in workforce and reorganization of duties throughout the office will work toward balancing our budget,” Welborn said in the statement. “We will continue to explore reductions in expenditures whenever possible.”