LOUISIANA SPOTLIGHT: Audits unveil Jindal-era money woes
BATON ROUGE — Financial troubles left behind by Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration continue to surface, with recent audits describing misspent money, shoddy bookkeeping and lost state-owned property.
Over the last few months, Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera’s nonpartisan office has documented poor financial management and oversight missteps in state agencies when they were led by Jindal administration officials.
The cleanup has been left to Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration, though in some instances, problems identified by the auditors continue under the agencies’ new leadership.
Louisiana’s labor department rolled out a new computer system on Nov. 9, in the final weeks of the Jindal administration, even after the system hadn’t passed necessary testing, causing widespread problems throughout the state unemployment program, auditors say.
Incorrect unemployment payments were issued as soon as the new computer system went online at the Louisiana Workforce Commission, and thousands of fraud investigations were stalled, according to the report from Purpera’s office. The system had such inadequate security that the report warns it could lead to “unauthorized view or theft of unemployment insurance and tax data.”
The computer upgrade was overseen by Jindal’s mother Raj Jindal, who had been the workforce commission’s information services director. She retired in January.
Edwards’ executive director of the workforce commission, Ava Dejoie, said in a statement that efforts continue to correct the computer problems.
“While our progress has been substantial, we have more work to do,” she said.
In another wide-ranging review, auditors found extensive financial problems across the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries during the Jindal era, raising questions about millions in spending from 2010 through 2015.
Purpera’s office says Gulf oil spill recovery money intended for fish testing instead paid for unnecessary iPads, cameras and boats. Auditors found federal grant dollars paid for a used boat that “appeared to have little or no benefit to the agency.” Department-owned guns are missing. Nearly $764,000 was spent on clothing, sponsorships and contracts questioned by auditors.
Robert Barham, Jindal’s wildlife and fisheries secretary and now the head of the Office of State Parks, defended his management of the seafood testing program, saying it was handled properly and came in under-budget.
On the broader financial deficiency allegations, Barham’s lawyer Mary Olive Pierson wrote in an audit response that the former secretary “was not directly involved with the circumstances of the other findings and recommendations made by the auditor.”
The governor recently ousted his own wildlife and fisheries secretary and replaced him with another, but Edwards says he remains committed to cleaning up the financial deficiencies identified by the auditors.
Another audit says the Jindal administration misclassified a March 2011 payment from Northrop Grumman Ship Systems for a defaulted economic development deal, using the $34.6 million to fill gaps in the state budget instead of repaying debt from the deal.
The move, Purpera’s office says, has cost the state more than $2 million in interest and administrative costs so far — and could cost $6 million more unless the debt is paid off early.
Edwards’ chief budget adviser, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, disagreed with the auditors’ finding, saying the Jindal administration’s decision against using the default payment for repaying the debt “was not prohibited by the terms” of the contract. Dardenne said lawmakers also signed off on the spending decisions.
Some problems identified by auditors from the Jindal era continue in the Edwards administration, according to Purpera’s office.
For example, auditors say Louisiana’s health department paid nearly $1 million in Medicaid fees for people who no longer live in the state and weren’t eligible for the program’s health services. The report suggests another $1.5 million could have been paid in error.
The improper payments were documented from February 2012 through May 2016, months after the Edwards administration had taken office. Louisiana’s Department of Health says it continues to work on improvements to its tracking of Medicaid enrollees.
And in reports released last month, auditors cited financial issues in the economic development, transportation and social services departments that covered both the Jindal and Edwards administrations.
Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte