Katara Williams

Katara A. Williams, former executive director of the La. Highway Safety Commission

State officials released a scathing audit Thursday that blasted the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission for clocking hundreds of hours in excessive overtime, misusing thousands of state and federal dollars, allowing unauthorized travel expenses and failing to properly track employee leave. 

The audit, released to The Advocate in response to a public records request, portrays an agency hobbled by mismanagement, shoddy record keeping and what the Department of Public Safety described as an alarming rate of turnover.

It outlined 15 "areas of concern," including a systemic lack of payroll controls and "possible ethics violations" such as commission employees attending the Essence Festival in New Orleans with tickets provided by a state vendor.     

The Louisiana State Police reviewed the audit but determined there was not sufficient evidence of criminal intent to pursue charges, said Maj. Doug Cain, a State Police spokesman. 

The commission is tasked with administering the state's highway safety grant program, an initiative intended to reduce traffic fatalities. The bulk of the agency's funding comes from federal grants, much of which is passed on to municipalities, local law enforcement agencies and non-profit organizations.  

DPS auditors examined the commission's finances between July 2016 and August 2017. The agency's executive director during that period was Katara A. Williams, an appointee of  Gov. John Bel Edwards. The governor tapped Lisa Freeman, a longtime prosecutor in Baton Rouge, to replace Williams in February but made no mention at the time of the mounting turmoil within the commission. 

Williams, who left the commission to work for the Southern University System, disputed several of the auditors' findings and in a formal response to the state asked that some of the allegations be left out of the final report. Attorney Ike Spears, of New Orleans, wrote a response on Williams' behalf in which he contended there were "pervasive issues" at the commission years before Williams' appointment in 2016.  

"It is important to note that an audit has not been conducted on the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission since 2009," Spears wrote.  

Freeman agreed with the auditors' long list of recommendations and said a number of changes have been made at the commission, including the addition of new internal controls. In an interview Thursday, she said she has used the audit as a "blueprint" to overhaul the commission.

Freeman said commission employees have not charged any overtime since her appointment as executive director in February.  

"In general terms, a work day is sufficient to do the work that's assigned to this particular agency," she said. "We're all working to get to a better place." 

Many of the audit's findings involved improper record keeping and the commission's failure to comply with state purchasing contract rules. The commission also overcharged the federal government on several occasions due to a lack of internal controls over federal vouchers, according to the audit. 

The report also focused on the commission's annual salaries and benefits, which account for 86 percent of the agency's expenditures. The audit found that the commission "does not have adequate controls to ensure that payroll transactions are properly recorded, approved and certified in accordance with" the law. Supervisors failed to monitor payroll time entries and, for nearly half of the pay periods audited, did not certify employee time entries in the payroll system. 

The auditors highlighted "excessive" overtime claimed by Dwayne Grant, who served as Williams' right-hand man and executive staff officer. Grant claimed more than 226 hours of overtime over the course of five pay periods last year without "evidence to support" those hours, the audit found. For four straight weeks, he claimed to have worked 13.5 hours each workday and eight hours of each weekend day.  

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"This employee did not take any leave from his starting date at LHSC in November 2016 through Aug. 8, 2017," the auditors wrote, "although there is evidence to support that he has taken time off that he did not claim." 

Grant, who also has left the commission, could not be reached for comment. 

Spears, the attorney who responded on Williams' behalf, said Grant worked all of those overtime hours with Williams' permission, performing tasks such as updating the commission's website and social media platforms.

Those projects were done "at a substantial cost saving to the agency," Spears wrote, adding the hiring of an outside firm for that project "would have been more than five times the amount spent on overtime." 

Spears added that Williams and Grant were never trained "on the accountability system and continued the processes as they found them."

He said they had requested training from the Department of Public Safety but were told "to review documents on the website and that no formal one-on-one training would be conducted."

The auditors' concerns involved more than Grant's hours. They pointed to an employee, not named in the audit, who claimed 53 hours overtime during a single pay period last year without a supervisor's approval. 

The audit also refers to a student worker who received pay for four days she did not work. Another unnamed employee told the auditors she was not even aware she needed to enter her hours into the payroll system. 

Auditors also compared payroll reports to an Outlook calendar that commission employees used to request leave. They found 43 instances in which nearly a dozen employees did not claim leave they had taken.

"Leave hours could not be determined due to unknown departure and arrival times of employees," the auditors said.  

The auditors also found that dozens of travel reimbursements submitted by employees were "inaccurate, incomplete and/or did not otherwise comply with federal and state requirements." The problems with the reimbursements were myriad, including conference lodging that was paid without approval, car rental charges in excess of the state's allowed rate, improper state credit card charges and "late night Uber charges."

The audit further found the commission failed to comply with state record-retention laws, and that employees shredded certain documents "without proper Secretary of State authorization." 

Spears, in his response to the state, said that allegation "cannot be proven," adding there is "absolutely no evidence that would support this finding."

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.