Auditor says government supervisors do poor job of rooting out fraud

By Chris Butler | Tennessee Watchdog

NASHVILLE — You might assume someone who audits a local and state government’s finances is supposed to uncover waste, fraud and abuse, but you assume incorrectly, according to an auditor who works in Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and Florida.

That’s the often-unfulfilled job of state and local officials who supervise those offices, said Ben Vance, a licensed auditor based in Alabama.

AUDIT: An auditor of government finances told Tennessee Watchdog that most people would be surprised to know the things he knows.

AUDIT: An auditor of government finances told Tennessee Watchdog that most people would be surprised to know the things he knows.

“People are under a false impression that it’s an auditor’s responsibility to find this stuff,” Vance told Tennessee Watchdog. “No. It’s the management’s responsibility. He or she is responsible for internal control. We don’t go in there to look for fraud. We certainly assess the risk and let that bear into what we’re looking at, but the management is responsible for that.”

Thieves who work for government entities, Vance said, catch on to the fact that taxpayer money is for the taking. Elected officials and other government employees often aren’t monitoring government spending carefully enough, he added.

“They’re ignorant to it and then they find out someone has been stealing from them for years and they’re just shocked because they haven’t been doing their own jobs,” Vance said.

“The local governments just do not pay attention to what their employees do and how things really run. I see that in a lot of cases. You have to wonder why the citizens of the town aren’t more involved when something like this happens.”

Government officials, in many cases, fail to detect theft of taxpayer money on their own even in the most extreme cases, Vance said, adding he discovered a government employee this week making numerous cash withdrawals with a government-issued debit card.

Vance wouldn’t say which state the theft occurred in.

Vance didn’t perform two recent audits in Collinwood, where a government employee allegedly stole $100,000 from taxpayers, or in Alcoa, where an employee allegedly stole $500,000.

Upon hearing about them, he said, “When you see something like that, everyone that was in office that had oversight over that person ought to be replaced because they weren’t doing their jobs.”

While those Tennessee-based examples may seem extreme, matters in that state are considerably better than in the other three states where Vance completes audits.

“Tennessee by far has the best setup as far as city finances goes,” Vance said.

Local governments in Tennessee are required to have certified financial managers to assist local governments with accounting issues. Those governments are also legally required not to go over budget and notify the state if they’re losing money, Vance said.

“You don’t find that in any other state,” Vance said. “Georgia has something similar to it, but it’s like Tennesee-lite. They review the financial statements. Alabama doesn’t do anything. The Florida Attorney General’s Office gets the report and they do some oversight, but it’s nothing like Tennessee.”

“Tennessee is the best managed of those four states,” Vance said.

Contact Christopher Butler at chris@tennesseewatchdog.org. or follow him and submit story ideas on his official Facebook page.

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