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Thursday, March 28, 2019 12:16 am

March madness

Audit shows problems with hoops tourney

 We knew it all along,

That, in a nutshell, is what Springfield School District 186 is saying about a forensic audit released last week that confirms tons of problems surrounding the high school basketball jamboree formerly known as the Adam Lopez Country Financial Thanksgiving Basketball Tournament.

Records were such a mess that auditors couldn’t determine whether money went missing. Lopez had taken cash boxes home. There was no way to determine whether ticket sales matched attendance. Checks were signed by one person instead of two. Invoices were missing.

Lopez, a school board member who now resides in jail, started the tournament in 2015, and it bore his name for three years. No one thought to say “wait a minute,” even as a school board member’s name was plastered on a high school basketball tournament.

Lopez now is an erstwhile financial adviser, having been canned by Country last September, then arrested and charged with ripping off clients who entrusted him with something north of $1 million. On the plus side, Lopez isn’t running for re-election, not that his vote has been vital on a board prone to unanimous votes. The district commissioned the audit last October, after Lopez fell under suspicion but before his arrest.

The district and the media should have been wary a lot sooner. The voice in this wilderness was Frank Vala, who many saw as a political opportunist when he started asking questions more than a year ago.

Vala, who lives next door to political powerbroker Bill Cellini in Leland Grove, hasn’t held elective office to speak of, unless you count Woodside Township – after being elected a trustee in 2017, he said he’d resign after questions arose about the propriety of being a trustee while also sitting on the Springfield Airport Authority board. Former Gov. Bruce Rauner appointed Vala chairman of the Illinois State Procurement Policy Board, a position he retains. He’s donated six figures to political candidates and committees.

When someone like Vala plays white knight, it is, to say the least, interesting, and it didn’t help matters that Vala is a Republican and Lopez is a Democrat. Among other things, Vala asked how Lopez’ conduct comported with a code of conduct for board members that states school board members should avoid “any conflict of interest or the appearance of impropriety, which could result from being a member of the school board as well as not using board membership for personal gain or publicity.”

The media, including me, and the school district were slow to jump when Vala started raising a stink. It’s Vala, so it must be politics, right?

Wrong.

When I finally wrote a story last April showing that tournament financial records were a mess, superintendent Jennifer Gill acknowledged problems and blamed poor bookkeeping. Policies and procedures, she promised, would be tightened. And, indeed, they were – the district last spring put into writing such edicts as a ban on using tournament cash boxes as petty cash depositories and a requirement that the school board approve contracts with teams, sponsors and vendors. It was obvious stuff.

Last June, the district’s regular auditor produced a four-page document that Gill has called an at-a-glance audit of the tournament. A better term would be audit lite. It is far less detailed than the 12-page audit released last week that cost the district more than $26,000, and it is considerably less pointed in its criticism. Last year’s audit found some of the same problems as the one released last week, but it contained no mention of cash boxes being taken home, nor did it make clear that it wasn’t possible to reconcile attendance with gate receipts. Auditors last year found “revenue recognition and expenditure reporting requirements that were in place…appear to have been adequate” but processes weren’t always followed.

Auditors with Eck, Schafer and Punke that performed the most recent audit were more blunt.

“Our work concluded that the Adam Lopez Country Financial Thanksgiving Tournament had a lack of district oversight and inadequate procedures over multiple accounting processes,” auditors wrote. “(W)e noted insufficient segregation of duties, management override of controls and limited monitoring of revenue sources and expenditures. Therefore, it is not possible to determine the volume and extent of transactions and funds that were not recorded.” Records show a $773 surplus, but who really knows, given loose controls and lax documentation.

Gill tells me that nothing in the most recent audit was unexpected. After all, the district already had audit lite in hand. “Nothing really jumped out as a surprise,” she says. “We were concerned about the way this was handled from the get-go, once I dove into it myself.” Vala, she acknowledges, had been right all along. “The concerns that he raised were good, and they always have been. I think a lot of his questions about board involvement and ethics could have been discussed earlier in the game.”

But they weren’t. Instead, when Vala spoke at a school board meeting a year ago to air concerns, Lopez, then school board president, cut him off after three minutes and adjourned the meeting. Not one member objected. Last summer, Lopez told fellow board members that his reputation had been unfairly besmirched, and if an audit showed that money was missing, he’d pay the auditors. No audit was commissioned then. Mike Zimmers, now board president, thanked Lopez and said it was time to move on. Vala doesn’t necessarily disagree.

“It’s certainly time to move on,” Vala tells me. “In my opinion, it’s time to replace the school board, and maybe some of the management.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com

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