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Wednesday, April 19, 2006 10:31 am

Same as it ever was

Secretary of State gets dinged for lax vehicle procedures — again

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Jesse White
Dave Druker remembers this one: The car was taken away, says the spokesman for Secretary of State Jesse White. The car in question was a state-owned vehicle used by a secretary to commute to work in Springfield back in 2003. She lived in Centralia, making her daily round trip a 200-mile journey. There was nothing nefarious going on, White’s office insisted then, as it does now: She stopped to do business at agency facilities on her way to and from work, so her use of a taxpayer-owned car was a legitimate public expense. Maybe, maybe not. Trouble was, there was no way to verify any official-business stops, nor did White’s office have any documentation certifying that the car was being used for public purposes. The case wasn’t unique. The Office of the Auditor General three years ago noted that no documentation existed for any of the 82 state cars (not including police vehicles) assigned to employees of the secretary of state. “We were unable to determine exactly how the employee used the vehicle as no log or purpose of travel is required from employees driving personally assigned State vehicles,” auditors wrote in 2003. “That was a number of years ago,” Druker says. “We did have the car taken away.” Why? “I think they felt they didn’t want another audit report,” Druker says. Well, they didn’t succeed. In a report issued March 30, the state auditor general says that no documentation was on file at the secretary of state’s office for 59 of the 62 state-owned cars assigned to White’s nonpolice employees as of June 2005. The documentation forms, which must be signed by the employee, a supervisor, and a department director, don’t sound particularly onerous. Developed after the 2003 audit, the forms are supposed to be reviewed annually to ensure that the official-business reason for letting an employee use a taxpayer-owned car still exists. The criteria that allow a nonpolice employee to be assigned a car include when an employee must drive considerable distances to many locations without stopping at headquarters; when an employee is regularly called to business from home outside normal hours; and a catch-all: When it is in the best interest of the secretary of state. In its response to the 2003 audit, the secretary of state’s office said that documentation forms had been created and would be kept on file. This time, officials in the office told auditors that they didn’t have documentation because they were in the midst of reassigning state vehicles and cutting down on the number of cars assigned to employees and hadn’t completed the required paperwork. The secretary’s staff told auditors that documentation has now been completed. State auditors don’t consider the matter merely a paperwork oversight. “If it’s in that report, we consider that to be important,” says Jim Dahlquist, spokesman for the state auditor general’s office. State Sen. Dan Rutherford, R-Pontiac, who is running for White’s office, says that the problems aren’t egregious, especially compared with problems uncovered at other agencies such as the Department of Transportation, where state auditors have found nearly $700,000 in questionable spending, including money that went for tattoos instead of roadwork. “From what I can see, at least the secretary of state’s office is saying they’re looking to meet compliance standards,” Rutherford says. Auditors have previously criticized White’s office for failing to keep tabs on publicly owned property. An estimated $1.4 million worth of computers, cameras, fax machines, furniture, and other office equipment has disappeared since White was elected in 1999. In a 2001 report, state auditors said that 22 percent of the equipment they had tried to find could not be located. In the most recent report, auditors said that they found other problems with vehicles assigned to the secretary of state’s office. Auditors reviewed 10 accidents and found five cases in which the office was between five and 532 days late in reporting accidents to the Department of Central Management Services. White’s office told auditors that four of the five involved hit-and-runs of unattended state vehicles, and the employee in charge didn’t know those incidents had to be reported. In the fifth case, in which a report was made five days late, White’s staff blamed a misunderstanding of the rules. Failure to promptly report accidents was also an issue in 2003, when six of 10 accidents auditors looked at were reported between five and 124 days late. Auditors also found personal use of state vehicles wasn’t being properly recorded so that it could be taxed. Auditors found the same problems in 2003 — in the commuting secretary’s case, just $3 a day was being added to her taxable wages, even though her use of the car was costing the state $72 a day. Auditors in their most recent report did not say how much had gone unreported.
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