For the past two years, whenever the words “audit” and “St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s Office” were uttered at the same time, one could count on it being bad news. But the beleaguered office released a rare bit of good audit news Monday, when Coroner Charles Preston announced that the office has been removed from the Louisiana legislative auditor’s “noncompliance” list.
Officials at the Legislative Auditor’s Office confirmed they have accepted a corrective action plan proposed by the Coroner’s Office, even as the auditor released a report Monday that detailed numerous accounting and financial reporting problems at the office during 2013.
The problems were severe enough that the auditor issued a “disclaimed” opinion, or one that says the audited agency was in violation of state law. Every agency that receives a disclaimed opinion is required to submit a corrective action plan, according to Joy Irwin, of the Legislative Auditor’s Office.
Most of the problems identified in the audit occurred or began before former Coroner Peter Galvan left office, was indicted and pleaded guilty to a single federal count of conspiring to steal public money in October.
Among the problems identified by the auditor’s report was the lack of a written policy for compensated absences, or sick and vacation leave. During 2013, the report says, one unidentified employee received cash payouts for leave time even though he had a negative balance. One part-time employee received the same benefits as full-time employees, and another part-time employee received unauthorized sick and vacation time.
In addition, paperwork documenting the leave time was sorely lacking: There were no time sheets, and several pay stubs were lacking. Due to the lack of records, it appeared but was not certain that other employees received benefits to which they were not entitled, the report says.
Another problem is that Act 181, which was passed by the Legislature last year, required the coroner to enter into an agreement for St. Tammany Parish to take over the ownership of all immovable property — the coroner’s buildings and grounds — by December 2013. That has not happened, putting the Coroner’s Office in violation of state law, the report says.
In addition, credit cards to purchase gas for the coroner’s fleet lacked adequate documentation, the report says. The cards were available to all employees, and there were no controls over their use. On at least six occasions, premium or diesel fuel was purchased for vehicles that do not take that fuel, the report says. In addition, many office vehicles were equipped with flashing blue lights, which are restricted to law enforcement vehicles.
According to a management response letter to the auditor’s report, the Coroner’s Office is developing a written plan to address paid leave time, and efforts are underway to recover the excess distributions.
Negotiations with the parish on taking over ownership of the office’s land and buildings are ongoing, Preston said Monday, admitting that an agreement is more than six months overdue. The two sides have reached broad agreement on the major aspects of the agreement, but some details, such as exactly how much authority the parish will have over Coroner’s Office contracts, are still being resolved, he said.
The Coroner’s Office also has instituted a strict vehicle policy under which all vehicles must be signed out before they are used, each one is assigned one fuel card and each employee has a PIN that tracks when fuel is purchased.
Preston said blue lights would remain on Coroner’s Office vehicles because the office was able to show that the lights help when investigators are on the scene of a death.
Preston, who has been on the job for about two months since his May election, praised the work of office administrator Ken Fielder in bringing the office in line with the auditor’s expectations.
“The lion’s share of the work has been done by Ken Fielder,” he said.
Fielder was hired by former interim Coroner Pramod Menon, who was appointed by the Parish Council in November and served until Preston took over.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.