Auditing Delayed is Accountability Denied

(December 2012)

Last week, we learned that a mail clerk in the City Water Department had been stealing printer ink for years as part of a scheme that ripped off more than $1.3 million from taxpayers from 2006 through 2012. Happily, with the help of a tip, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Philadelphia Inspector General put an end to this theft of our money. But where was City Controller Alan Butkovitz, the City's independently elected financial watchdog? Asleep at the switch as usual, too busy playing politics to further his mayoral campaign to do his job. 

Why do some continue to scam taxpayers and rip off Philadelphia? Certainly we will never totally eliminate greed and vice from human hearts.  But, too often in our city, it's because too many know there is little chance they will get caught.

It is the City Controller's job to audit the agencies of the government and the City Charter is quite clear about those responsibilities. The City’s governing document states the Controller's Office "shall audit at least annually the affairs of every officer, department, board, including the accounts of any board of directors of City trusts, and commission of the City."

However, according to the Controller's website, the last audit of the Water Department was released three years ago and covered from July 1, 2006 to June 30, 2008. That is the auditing equivalent of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted -- having ripped the taxpayers off on its way out to pasture. 

Delayed auditing and denied accountability is a hallmark of Butkovitz’s performance.  The most recent audit published by the Controller issued last week, examines an agency’s affairs covering fiscal years 2007-2009, which means we are only now learning about its activities that occurred as early as July 2006 -- which was during the term of the previous mayor.  How does it possibly help us improve governmental operations, stop shenanigans, or prevent future problems if we are looking at the equivalent of municipal ancient history?

Not only is regular, efficient, and capable auditing the law in Philadelphia, it is absolutely necessary to prevent fraud and abuse. When those who would commit crimes understand that there will be no oversight or investigation for years, they understand they have an opportunity fleece us. The foxes know there is nobody watching the hen house so they are emboldened by the Controller’s inaction.

Of course, this is far from the only instance where Butkovitz's refusal to do his job has let problems continue unabated.

After the Controller failed to uncover the City paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in utility bills for an upscale restaurant, the Daily News took him to task and editorialized: 

"And speaking of audits, what is the city controller’s role in this mess? This kind of mistake is exactly the kind of red flag he and his staff are charged with discovering….The Controller’s Office is supposed to be the city’s fiscal watchdog. Obviously, they can’t catch everything, but given this latest outrage, we’d say they deserve the same kind of criticism that they’re used to dishing out."  (May 4, 2012)

Years earlier, a Philadelphia Citypaper columnist was equally harsh in his commentary about Butkovitz's failings overseeing his agency and his inability to stop waste, fraud, and abuse:

"If auditors were CSI agents, it'd be like pursuing cases whose statutes have expired and whose suspects have fled. Auditing delayed is accountability denied -- especially in a city that's barely afloat." (March 26, 2009)

Philadelphians have endured years of increased taxes and service cutbacks.  In this time -- and at all times -- we need to make sure that we are spending our money wisely.  We certainly cannot afford to be wasting money or getting ripped off.  That’s why we elect an independent city auditor to keep an eye on City Hall, promote effective spending, and prevent theft.  When the Controller fails in his role as a watchdog, we are in trouble, indeed. 

Everyone who reports to work each day understands that our bosses expect us to do our jobs and we can take pride in doing those jobs well. But when an elected official does not do his job, it's up to us to fire him. We're the boss. It's our money. We deserve better.