Sunday, December 2, 2007

Incompetence In Criminal Sheriff's Office

There was an editorial in the Times Picayune yesterday that I found very interesting. The title of the editorial was Bookkeeping Blunders. I myself would have labeled it more harshly. Well, here goes:

The Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff's Office has made a muddle of its books, overcharging the city and state for prisoner housing, and that doesn't inspire confidence in an agency that operates with little independent oversight.

One of the errors resulted in overcharges to the city of almost $2 million. And while the Sheriff's Office has paid the money back, the problem didn't come to light for nearly two years and only because a state audit prompted Sheriff Marlin Gusman to take a harder look at billing.

The state audit found that the Sheriff's Office had been charging both the city and the state for inmates who were the state's financial responsibility. That double billing amounted to a $142,288 overcharge to the city in 2006. A private accounting firm is determining how much the city was erroneously charged in 2007.

But the state also paid too much for prisoners because the Sheriff's Office didn't notify the state when it released inmates. That resulted in a $244,371 overpayment from January 2006 through February 2007.

After those revelations, Sheriff Gusman said that he directed his staff to look into possible problems with billing for federal prisoners. That was the right move, and it uncovered yet another problem: the Sheriff's Office had billed the city for prisoners who were already being paid for by the U.S. Marshal's Service or Immigration and Custom Enforcement. As a result, the city was charged nearly $2 million that it did not owe.

Sheriff Marlin Gusman blames the blunders on a switch in billing systems required by the state, which went into effect in November 2005. That change meant that the Sheriff's Office was no longer printing separate invoices for the city and state, which had prevented double-billing.

But when the state required the change, it provided Department of Corrections trainers to local agencies, and those trainers stressed the need for departments to reconcile their books, a state official said.

The Sheriff's Office should have managed the transition better and should have made sure that it was billing accurately for prisoners and catching any errors. Going forward, Sheriff Gusman needs to make sure that all the problems have been spotted and corrected.

But the sheriff also needs to run a more open operation, something he's resisting even in the face of these embarrassing bookkeeping blunders. He submitted a one-page budget proposal to the City Council, seeking $27 million in city funds without providing any details on how his office plans to spend the money.

When City Councilwoman Shelley Midura said she thought his proposal wasn't as transparent as it should be, Sheriff Gusman bristled. He said that he's only required to submit a single budget figure to the city.

But Ms. Midura isn't the first to make that complaint. When Sheriff Gusman was Mayor Marc Morial's chief administrative office, he had the same issue with Sheriff Charles Foti's budget requests.

He was right then. Public agencies that spend public money should operate as openly as possible. Even if the Sheriff's Office were infallible -- and it clearly isn't -- that wouldn't be an argument for being so cagey.

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