The preliminary forensic audit of Alabama State University was released by Gov. Robert Bentley this week, and the allegations it contains should raise the hackles of every Alabama taxpayer.
Those allegations include claims that current or former ASU trustees had conflicts of interest or relatives who received ASU funds improperly. The audit also outlines what appears to be serious mishandling and waste involving a contract between ASU and Medicaid.
And the audit claims that ASU had numerous contracts with individuals and organizations in which the contracts specified "no deliverables." That is accountant-speak for contracts that specify such things as what and when someone will be paid, but that does not specify the goods or services they will produce in order to justify those payments. No agency that uses public funds should ever enter into a contract that does not specify "deliverables" in as exact and detailed a manner as possible.
But as serious as are the allegations this forensic audit spells out about financial dealings at ASU, in the long run what the audit does not spell out may prove to be even a greater concern to the people of Alabama.
That's because the audit makes it clear that ASU's pattern of "stonewalling" -- to use the governor's word -- has worked to block the forensic audit from digging nearly as deeply into public records as auditors would have liked.
The frustration felt by auditors comes through loud and clear to anyone who reads the preliminary audit report.
Consider these statements sprinkled throughout the audit:
-- "FSS's (Forensic Strategic Solutions) assessment of ASU was thwarted and hampered by ASU from the beginning ..."
-- "FSS has not been provided with timely, transparent and reasonable access to documents, individuals, and other information necessary to complete the assessment."
-- "ASU's actions have caused significant delay and have impeded the ability to get clear and transparent answers."
-- "FSS has no confidence that the documents produced by ASU are complete and reliable."
The forensic auditors noted that although their audit was hampered by ASU from the start," it "proved increasingly difficult" to get access to records after the law firm of former federal judge U.W. Clemon was hired by ASU. (Readers will recall that I wrote in May about Clemon being paid $375 an hour by ASU in apparent conflict with an executive order by the governor's office that state entities could pay outside attorneys no more than $195 per hour except in extraordinary circumstances that were preapproved by the governor. The governor's office said then that no such preapproval had been sought.)
It should be noted that most, if not all, of the documents being sought by the forensic auditors hired by the governor appear to be public records -- contracts, bills and checks and records directly related to those documents. Those are the kinds of public records to which any resident of Alabama should be able to have access in a timely fashion.
Clemon issued a statement Monday in which he said that the procedures he used to handle the requests of the forensic auditors were designed "to minimize the impact that the investigation process had on the day-to-day operations of ASU." The two current trustees named in the audit also denied any wrongdoing.
But regardless of Clemon's claim, it appears that the end result is that information that should be readily available to the public has been either blocked completely, or redacted to the point that it is no longer useful, or delayed for months.
In effect, ASU's tactics have made a mockery of the state's public records law and of the right of Alabamians to have access to information about how their tax money is being spent and how their government is operating.
Gov. Bentley, who serves as president of the ASU board of trustees (as well as boards of other state universities), has said he will call a meeting of the board to discuss the audit results. Bentley should forcefully ask that the board order the ASU administration to immediately and fully comply with all records requests from the forensic auditors.
If such board action does not occur, the governor should do what any citizen has the right to do -- file a freedom of information lawsuit that asks the courts to order ASU to comply.
No entity of the state should be allowed to use public money to hire a private law firm and then delegate to that private firm the authority to block public access to public records.
If the governor does not use every tool available to him to keep ASU from successfully "stonewalling" its way out of allowing a complete and thorough audit, he should not be surprised to see other state entities use similar tactics -- also financed with the public's money -- to avoid public scrutiny.
Bentley very properly set this forensic audit in motion in an attempt to get to the bottom of allegations raised by the former president of ASU. He should not allow the stalling tactics of ASU to work. As governor, he has an obligation to defend the public's right to have access to public records and to know how its money is being spent.
Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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