Sunday, May 18, 2003

Who's accountable?



Numerous individuals and government departments are supposed to ensure that tax money is properly spent. They are:

Auditor's Office: It audits more than 5,000 state and local agencies and departments and government contractors each year. Auditors identify misspending that includes fraud, money that can't be accounted for and dollars improperly spent under state or federal guidelines. It reports its findings to the attorney general and, in some cases, to county prosecutors and state agencies. Auditor Betty Montgomery wants a new law giving her office more power to audit private firms.

Inspector General's Office: It investigates complaints of fraud, waste and corruption within state agencies that answer to the governor. Investigations that reveal misspent money or criminal acts are forwarded to the state auditor, the attorney general and to county prosecutors, depending on the type of violation.

Attorney General's Office: It's supposed to try to recover tax money that auditors determine was misspent. In cases where county prosecutors get first crack at recovering money, the attorney general can take action after 120 days. The attorney general also can go after money misspent under federal rules if state officials ask him to step in. Attorney General Jim Petro wants a law allowing him to recover up to three times the amount paid to people who fraudulently claim to do government work.

County officials: The state watches over county social service agencies that spend more than $1 billion a year in local, state and federal tax dollars on private firms that care for the mentally retarded, foster children and other vulnerable people. When misspending occurs, county prosecutors are the first people who can go after the money. No one has been tracking how often the state's 88 county prosecutors take action or how much they have collected.

Government contractors: Private companies and consultants are supposed to comply with federal and state rules for spending tax money. But often, contracts are loosely worded, controls are lax and no one closely monitors spending. (Story in Monday's Enquirer)

Lawmakers: They can pass laws that give state officials the responsibility and power to go after tax money. Several are pushing for reforms, including new laws that allow the state to go after a government contractor's luxury cars or other assets if they were improperly bought with tax money.

Gov. Bob Taft and his cabinet: The governor appoints department heads who review state audits and decide whether to go after misspent money. Taft, who is in Mexico on a trade mission, released a statement saying that state and county agencies should "seek recovery of misspent funds whenever appropriate."

- Debra Jasper and Spencer Hunt




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