A new audit sheds light on the administrative disarray Dr. Jeffrey Rouse inherited when he took the reins last year at the Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office.
The annual report, conducted by a newly retained accounting firm, highlights a series of shortfalls in the office’s internal controls, most of which Rouse said he has acted to address. Rouse, who has been outspoken about the need for wholesale change in the office, said he agreed with — and welcomed — the audit’s conclusions.
“The bottom line is that years of neglect cannot be fixed in a matter of weeks,” he said. “But we are working hard every day to get there.”
Aside from the finding of shoddy record-keeping, some of the audit’s conclusions raised the specter of possible criminal activity. The audit noted, for instance, that a credit card issued to an unnamed former employee had been employed for “personal use,” underscoring a lack of oversight that became commonplace under Frank Minyard, the former coroner who occupied the office for four decades.
“Numerous payments” to professional services vendors were made without invoices, the audit found, creating a lack of documentation to support certain office spending. Cash accumulated and wasn’t deposited on a timely basis, and so-called supplemental pay for employees wasn’t recorded properly.
A 2013 report by New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux found the Coroner’s Office had doled out supplemental pay to some employees and contractors ranging from $200 to $2,000 per month without supporting documentation or authorization “by statute or the City Council to make such payments.” Those undocumented wages came at least in part from funds the office collected for services provided to other parishes.
Acknowledging that cash payments can be “fraught with many problems,” Rouse stopped accepting cash last year and did away with the office’s use of petty cash.
The new coroner, who took office in May, said in a formal response to the audit that he is phasing out supplemental pay and developing a comprehensive policy and procedure manual for the office.
“One of the most difficult things I’ve observed in my short time as coroner is not only handling the volume of death investigations, but also improving all aspects of this office,” Rouse said. “It has been clear to me, from the very beginning, that nearly everything in this office ... needs to be updated to not only reflect modernization in our scientific methods but also to follow all best business practices that government entities should employ.”
The audit, which covered the year ending June 30, identified a list of problems with the office’s accounting practices, including the failure of employees to use time sheets.
The office also paid more than $3,600 in year-end bonuses, the audit found, including one $1,500 payment to a single unnamed employee.
Rouse ended that practice as well upon taking office, and he now requires employees to fill out time sheets to be approved by supervisors.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.