After Uintah County Uses Pandemic Money On A Tubing Hill, Audit Finds Finances “Affected”
The Utah Office of the State Auditor released a report reprimanding Uintah County for poor accounting practices and improper spending of federal funds to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
The state audit, which assessed the 2020 county’s finances, identified 13 issues that span “the full spectrum of state accounting, from the tonality at the top to the day-to-day management” of funds, according to a press release on Wednesday.
District commissioners “blurred the lines of accountability” when they took budget responsibility to the district clerk / auditor, the audit found. The clerk / auditor, in turn, lacks “the skills, knowledge and expertise” to prepare financial reports, it said. The audit found that some officials were circumventing contract procurement guidelines and internal controls, “giving the impression that these internal controls are not important”.
However, what spurred the audit, and led to some of the more important findings, were complaints about the Commission’s decision to spend aid to the pandemic to expand a tubing hill and provide corporate grants to their family members.
“We received several anonymous whistleblower tips raising concerns about the spending of certain COVID-related federal funds,” State Auditor John Dougall said in an email to the Salt Lake Tribune.
Uintah County refused to respond to Dougall’s initial inquiries about these funds, he added, and directed his team to conduct the audit.
“I am deeply concerned about the severity of the financial turmoil in the Uintah County government, particularly its failure to comply with the regulations required for federal funding,” Dougall wrote in Wednesday’s press release.
In a written response to the examination, the district commissioners called the examination “illegal” and disagreed with many of their findings.
When Congress passed Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) last spring, it instructed the state of Utah to channel and monitor funds in most counties in the state based on their population size. Uintah County received $ 5.1 million.
The audit found that nearly $ 3.5 million was used on the county’s economic recovery grants, but officials overseeing that US dollar did nothing to verify or document whether applicants were affected by the pandemic .
Of these grants, $ 117,000 went to “Corporations Owned by Certain District Officials and Their Immediate Family Members.” The Tribune previously reported that Commissioner Bart Haslem’s son received $ 20,000 in CARES funds for his aviation business and Haslem’s wife received $ 20,000 for her travel business. Commissioner Brad Horrocks’ sons also received a total of $ 77,000 for their RV, farm, energy and hunting equipment businesses.
An additional $ 243,751 went towards purchasing equipment for Buckskin Hills Ski and Snow Tubing Hill, the audit found, which was not well documented. The governor’s office had questioned why the equipment couldn’t be rented instead to meet public health needs, and some of the funds had insufficient evidence that it was being spent on pandemic-related needs.
A public record request sent in January showed that Uintah County had spent at least $ 322,000 on tubing mound.
The investigation also challenged the Commission’s decision to buy six tubing hill snow cannons from the same vendor for $ 19,999 each, which was exactly one US dollar below the threshold the Commission would have asked for bids have to. The commission changed that policy days later, according to the audit.
Public procurement circumvention appears to have been a pattern of conduct by the Commission in 2020, with the audit citing several other examples. The county paid $ 42,200 to a single social media and communications services consultant with no contract or tender. In November 2020, the commissioners bought a $ 159,000 body scanner for the prison without soliciting bids, and then retrospectively changed the policy to reflect the cost, exam claims.
“The retrospective change in guidelines creates the impression that following established guidelines is not important,” the audit found.
In addition, the county was convicted in the audit last year for failing to disclose conflicts of interest for elected officials and public officials. It reprimanded the district officials for using poorly designed and difficult to track financial software. It was alleged that the county workers lacked “adequate experience and training” which led them to disrupt the administration of other federal grants, which put future funding at risk.
District officials answer
In a written response to the audit, the commissioners called the audit “unlawful” and referred to the state code that states that Dougall’s office cannot conduct “performance” or “special purpose” audits on public entities that already have auditors have chosen and their finances by an external auditor within the last financial year.
“We believe audits are necessary and that audits show things that you need to improve,” Haslem said in an interview with The Tribune. “But the audit that the state auditor conducted was conducted illegally.”
The county commissioned its own independent review after the state began the review. It listed similar issues identified by Dougall’s office and found a few additional ones, such as inappropriately attended public gatherings. This report was also accompanied by the State’s audit, which indicated that these findings should be taken into account.
While the district commissioner’s response questioned the legality of the state audit, it went on to address the issues listed and disagreed with most of them. For example, the commissioners claimed that during discussions in public meetings they had properly documented the need for tubing hills costs.
“We didn’t build a tubing hill with it [CARES] With money, we’ve expanded Tubing Hill, “Haslem told The Tribune, adding that expansion would be needed during the pandemic to” create space and get people outside. “
The Commissioner acknowledged that the audit revealed a handful of valid items – for example, their financial tracking software needs to be revised. You should have disclosed any conflicts of interest. And they should have obtained quotes for their social media contractor.
“We agree, we screwed it up,” said Haslem.
But he disagreed with most of the test’s allegations, saying Dougall was using the test to “harass” the county. “I’m not trying to start a war with the state auditor,” said Haslem.[but] I would like to see that every agency follows state regulations. “
The commission refused to sign a representation letter claiming the county had properly reported its financial information, developed solid internal controls and assumed responsibility for its financial statements – something that all financial audits require, Dougall told The Tribune.
When asked why the commission refused to sign the letter, Haslem alluded to a feud the commissioners had with the county officer / auditor Mike Wilkins. The commissioners stripped Wilkins of his budgetary oversight agency in 2019 and reassigned her to a new budgetary officer under their leadership – something that criticized the district audit as a disguise of accountability. Earlier this year, they also attempted to remove the clerk / auditor from his accounting authority, which Wilkins denounced as a disruption of checks and balance sheets.
That effort lost its vigor when a similar move in Utah County won the ire of Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, who called it “insane,” and Utah Senator Jake Anderegg, who called it a “grip on power”, stoked.
But the state’s audit revealed several concerns about the Uintah County Clerk / Auditor’s office, which challenged Wilkins’ skills and expertise.
Wilkins told the Tribune the commissioners “threw me under the bus,” but referred the newspaper to his written response to the state auditor’s findings.
In that answer, which was shorter and more measured than the commissioners’ refutation, Wilkins also contradicted many of the statements relating to his office and assessments of his capabilities. Nonetheless, he noted that his office would “make more efforts” to track the county’s assets and put in place internal controls.
The state audit concluded with the finding that the county government’s response highlighted “the lack of understanding and responsibility” regarding the county’s financial reporting and oversight, which the auditor identified as “concerning”.
“Although penalties could be imposed,” Dougall told The Tribune, “we hope our office and other stakeholders can work with various county officials to help the Uintah County take appropriate corrective action.”