Eighteen months ago, in the wake of revelations that former St. Tammany Parish Coroner Peter Galvan had raided public coffers for his personal use, a committee of parish officials and volunteers recommended that parish agencies voluntarily subject themselves to more stringent state oversight.
The first of the reports mandated by Act 774 of the 2014 legislative session have begun trickling out, and the first dozen or so “enhanced audits” — probes that go beyond normal annual audits — have yet to uncover any major wrongdoing.
But that doesn’t mean they are not doing what they were intended to do, said Rick Danielson, the Mandeville City Council member who was chairman of the task force that recommended the audits.
“We did not want to create a huge burden on any agency,” Danielson said of the enhanced audits, most of which are shorter than 10 pages. Fear of such a burden was a major concern expressed during the task force’s seven-month study of how to improve the accountability and integrity of St. Tammany government.
The goal of the enhanced audits was to hit certain “hot-button” areas, such as credit cards, leave policy and travel, Danielson said.
Those are the areas where public agencies most often get into trouble. Galvan’s use of a Coroner’s Office credit card to pay for private boat and airplane equipment as well as lavish dinners was one of the main reasons he’s serving a two-year sentence in Oakdale Federal Correctional Institution.
Working with parish officials, the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office determined which agencies would be audited and what questions they would be asked, Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera said.
State auditors studied the regular annual audits of the several dozen public and quasi-public agencies in St. Tammany that get more than $50,000 each in public funds, which is the threshold for eligibility to be audited. They then surveyed each agency’s policies and procedures to probe for weaknesses.
That information was used to determine which agencies would be audited and what areas would be examined.
There have been some big agencies in this first batch: Sheriff Jack Strain’s office was examined, as were Clerk of Court Malise Prieto’s office and the City of Slidell.
They, along with the several smaller agencies that were audited, came off relatively clean: A $200 travel duplication was noticed in the Sheriff’s Office audit, but as soon as the mistake was discovered, the employee repaid the money and procedures were corrected to make sure it didn’t happen again.
Some of the problems noted were not criminal but rather areas where agencies could improve policies and procedures.
For instance, the audit of the 22nd Judicial District Public Defender’s Office noted that its employee handbook did not contain four ethics points recommended by the Legislative Auditor’s Office and that procedures were not in place for removing check-signing authority when an employee leaves or for opening a credit card account. In each case, the office promised to update its policies to include the missing elements.
Originally, Galvan’s excesses prompted a public clamor for an Inspector General’s Office with broad investigative authority. That led officials to create the task force Danielson chaired.
One of the main critics of the audit plan said Monday that he’s still skeptical.
Rick Franzo, head of the activist group Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, said the audits are not broad enough in scope. Due to their selective nature, they are restricted in what they can look at, he said, calling the plan a “feel-good audit to make the public feel like there’s still something going on” to ferret out corruption.
Franzo remains committed to the idea of an inspector general in St. Tammany, indicating his group will consider whether to try to get the idea before voters through a referendum — a notoriously difficult process, and one that would have to be followed by legislative action and a constitutional amendment.
But Danielson — who championed the idea of enhanced audits on the task force — reiterated his position Monday that the current plan will serve the parish better in the long run than having a full-time investigative office.
“I think this does have teeth,” he said, calling the audits a “preventative” measure.
When asked if the audits could have stopped Galvan from buying items for his boat with public money, Danielson said they could have.
“If they had had their credit card policy reviewed, with the attention on it, then they would have been forced to make improvements to the policy,” he said. “It’s not to wait until there’s a problem. It’s, ‘Let’s hit them now so they don’t become a problem later.’ ”
Purpera said he shares Danielson’s optimism. He said the enhanced auditing in St. Tammany is a “pilot project,” and if it goes well, it could spread throughout the state.
The Legislative Auditor’s Office had gotten no pushback from any of the agencies audited so far, he added.
John Stovall, the finance director at the Council on Aging of St. Tammany, agreed. “For us, it was a cakewalk,” he said of the group’s audit.
Similarly, a Sheriff’s Office spokesman said the agency was happy to produce the documentation that auditors requested.
Danielson and Purpera both said the project is still in its early stages and that it will be refined as it goes forward.
“It’s a good start,” Purpera said.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.