Editorials

When government leaders get audited, it should be an event to be dreaded

East St. Louis Township Supervisor Oliver W. Hamilton spent $230,000 on the township-issued American Express credit card. Trustees failed to stop the excess, and it did not show up on financial audits.
East St. Louis Township Supervisor Oliver W. Hamilton spent $230,000 on the township-issued American Express credit card. Trustees failed to stop the excess, and it did not show up on financial audits. Photo illustration

You would think $280,000 in spending on a government-issued credit card would set off alarms. You would think a $12,500 trip to Walmart would catch someone’s attention. You would think overspending the salary budget by $140,902 would set some red flags to waving.

But then again, maybe you lose the forest for the trees — especially when the forest is on fire.

East St. Louis Township spent itself nearly $3 million into the hole, more debt than all the taxes and grants it takes in over a two-year period.

Trustees had the primary responsibility for catching the abuses, especially after an early abuse led the to set a $1,000 monthly limit on the township American Express cards. Yet they ignored their own limits when they approved paying all those excessive credit card bills for years.

Government bodies pay for annual audits, and East St. Louis Township’s audit for fiscal year 2015 was $8,000. One would think they would be designed to catch fraud and identify weaknesses in the financial controls.

“It is weird that the taxpayer can’t go in and ask questions about the audit, but that is the way it works,” said Mark Peecher, a certified public accountant who teaches business at the University of Illinois. “If (an auditor) sees an irregularity or a suspicion is raised, he should do something about it. But credit card (abuse) might not even be included in the audit’s working papers, so he might not know anything about it.”

That might be true. That might need to change.

When public dollars pay for an audit, the public should have access to all the results of the audit, including those contained in the management letter. When public funds are at risk, there should be a probing and adversarial relationship with the government officials rather than a client relationship.

That’s not the law, but it should be.

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