Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Long-Awaited Nassau County Clerk's Office Audit is Out

No wonder O'Connell wanted it supressed until after the special election.

Control of Over $300 Million Annually in Hands of a Single Employee;Weitzman Asks DiNapoli for Comprehensive Audits of County Clerks;Weitzman Directs Clerk to Start Using County’s Accounting System

An audit of the Nassau County Clerk’s Office has found serious weaknesses in the control, oversight, and accounting for hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes and fees that flow through the office annually, Comptroller Howard Weitzman announced today at a Mineola press conference. As a result, Comptroller Weitzman today directed the Clerk’s Office to begin recording all its financial transactions in the county’s financial system and asked the State Comptroller to launch a comprehensive audit of County Clerks’ offices in Nassau and the rest of New York State.
“I have written to State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli,” Comptroller Weitzman said, “asking that he conduct a comprehensive review of the Nassau Clerk’s Office, to determine whether taxpayer funds paid to the Clerk are recorded and distributed appropriately to the state and local governments. I have also asked that he consider reviewing other county clerk operations in light of our findings.
“The Nassau County Clerk’s office has fewer financial controls in place than did the Roslyn School District when it failed to detect a multi-million-dollar embezzlement and fraud,” Comptroller Weitzman said. “We found essentially no accounting system, an utter lack of financial controls - in short, a series of red flags that make the Clerk’s Office exceptionally vulnerable to embezzlement and fraud.
“I want to be clear that our audit did not uncover actual fraud or illegality in the Clerk’s Office. But given the lack of a real accounting system in the Office, such misconduct would not be detected using normal auditing techniques.”
The County Clerk collects more revenue, apart from sales and property taxes, than any other county department, Comptroller Weitzman said, yet has fewer financial controls in place. “We discovered the Office uses a totally inappropriate “Mom and Pop” approach to accounting for annual revenues of more than $300 million a year - and that might be an insult to small businesses everywhere, which generally use more sophisticated accounting procedures and software than what we found in the Clerk’s Office.”

Among the audit’s major findings:
- The Clerk’s Office assigns a single deputy county clerk responsibility for almost all financial transactions - receiving funds, investing them, reconciling bank statements, transferring funds by wire, disbursing funds, and recording transactions - with no oversight, no written procedures, and no back-up staff. “Concentrating all financial duties in the hands of one person means that errors and improprieties can go undetected,” Comptroller Weitzman said.
- The Clerk’s Office does not record most of its financial transactions in the Nassau Integrated Financial System (NIFS). Instead, the Office uses dozens of primitive spreadsheets, subject to frequent manual alteration without proper review, to record most revenues, expenditures, banking transactions and investments.

- Cashiers in the Clerk’s Office have the ability to waive or change fees and taxes without supervisor approval, and are not prevented from doing so by the office’s computerized transaction recording system, known as “BROWNtech.” During a test of three days in December 2005, a total of $398,243 was reported as waived or reduced charges. “Although there are legitimate reasons for fees to be waived in some cases, cashiers could literally waive or discount them at will, without a supervisor’s approval and without noting the reason in the computerized transaction system,” Comptroller Weitzman said.
- The BROWNtech transaction recording system was obtained from a small firm run out of the owner’s home in Massachusetts, and the Clerk has not given the county’s Information Technology department password access to support the system. Technical support is provided personally by the president of the firm via remote access, raising security concerns for sensitive data, and the firm’s small size presents a risk should the company cease to operate or support the program.
- The figures reported in the Clerk’s annual report to the Legislature are internally inconsistent and cannot be reconciled to the spreadsheets prepared by the Clerk’s Office. Auditors noted unexplained inconsistencies totaling at least $366,000 in the 2005 report.
-The Clerk’s Office had no written policy and procedures manuals to document or regulate the way it manages cash, processes mail, receives revenues, disburses payments, invests its funds, or keeps its books.

“The absence of accounting controls that we found in the Clerk’s Office has existed for years, and clearly predates the current Clerk’s administration,” Comptroller Weitzman noted. “However, since the current Clerk took office in January 2006, she has not put in place procedures or a new management team to correct these deficiencies.”
The audit of the Clerk’s Office was delayed for approximately two years, initially due to lack of cooperation from the previous County Clerk, Karen Murphy, who refused to release documents or allow Comptroller’s staff on the premises. After months of delay, the Comptroller ultimately subpoenaed the Clerk’s records, and subsequent litigation resulted in a court order compelling the Clerk’s Office to recognize the Comptroller’s authority to audit. The current Clerk, Maureen O’Connell, did not permit the Comptroller’s Office to begin field work until March 23, 2006.
“Once we began the audit, the Clerk’s Office imposed strict and, in our view, unjustified limitations on the scope of our audit,” Comptroller Weitzman added. “As a result we terminated our field work in September 2006 after having documented the findings contained in this report. Since I became Comptroller in 2002, no other county agency has forbidden our auditors from observing normal operations directly or speaking freely with employees, but that’s what occurred here. In fact during the audit my staff was mostly confined to a conference room in the Clerk’s Office.”

See the full report here. (opens as .pdf)

See the letter to State Comptroller DiNapoli that asks an investigation here. (opens as .pdf)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Maureen should fire her holdover Deputy Jim Whitton. He is screwing her over. She needs professional people in that office not Karen's leftovers.