By William Patrick | The Center Square
(The Center Square) – The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections failed to provide documentation for more than $1.6 million in federal COVID-19 aid spending, according to a recent state audit.
The Louisiana Legislative Auditor, an agency tasked with providing financial accountability for public funds, examined the department’s internal handling of expense reimbursements relating to the Coronavirus Relief Fund, a $150 billion CARES Act program assisting state and local governments.
The U.S. Department of Treasury explicitly noted the relief funding was for COVID-19-related expenses “as it relates to sanitation and improvement of social distancing measures,” as well as other approved health precautions.
Auditors reviewed a large sample of paid reimbursement invoices from the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Elayn Hunt Correctional Center and Adult Probation and Parole facilities.
About 99% of invoices lacked documentation indicating the expenses were incurred because of the pandemic. They also were not accounted for in the state budget, as required.
Another 6% of tested relief payments stemmed from expenses occurring before March 1, 2020 – before the acceptable period for federal help.
“The Department received reimbursement from the Coronavirus Relief Fund for expenditures … that did not comply with program requirements or were inadequately supported resulting in $1,648,025 total questioned costs,” the audit concluded.
All relevant nonpayroll reimbursements to the department amounted to $7,761,339. Accordingly, about one-in-five taxpayer-funded reimbursement dollars was considered questionable.
Auditors also found payment requests often were prepared, reviewed and approved by the same individuals.
Department Secretary James LeBlanc disagreed with the audit’s findings. In a response letter, LeBlanc said guidance provided by the Louisiana Division of Administration, the state’s financial management arm, was “strictly adhered.”
LeBlanc also asserted the federal aid program gave broad discretion to states and quoted from a U.S. Treasury FAQ webpage: “governments are responsible for making determinations as to what expenditures are necessary due to the public health emergency with respect to COVID-19 and do not need to submit any proposed expenditures to Treasury.”
That rational was mistaken, the audit said, as it applied to expense considerations directly related to lessening the impact of COVID-19, and not for items such as upkeep for weed eaters, lawn mowers and tractors; auto repairs, shredders, re-upholstered chairs and horse feed – all expenses cited in the report.
According to the legislative auditor, state agencies were required to track all pandemic-related expenses, mark reimbursement invoices “Related to the Coronavirus COVID-19” and provide a brief explanation – not unlike reimbursement policies and tax-deductible receipt requirements for privately employed citizens.