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Montee finds more 'lax record keeping' in latest St. Louis audits

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 5, 2009 - Because city corrections officials hadn't been checking the commissary-account bank statements for years, Missouri state Auditor Susan Montee says the department was unaware that a former inmate electronically stole about $18,000 from the account over the course of 15 months.

The department learned of the thefts when the St. Louis Police Department received a tip. About $15,000 has been recovered, via the unnamed bank that allowed the unauthorized electronic withdrawals. 

Montee said in an interview Thursday that the incident exemplified her office's chief finding in its latest audit that the Corrections Department -- like many other city departments -- failed to have adequate controls over its money.

The department also has accumulated about $200,000 that is owed to thousands of former inmates who had turned in the money when they were incarcerated. But when they were released, the inmates failed, or were unable, to collect the money due them. About a quarter of the money is considered "abandoned funds'' because it has been unclaimed for more than three years, the audit said.

In a written statement included in the audit findings, released Thursday, department officials replied that two temporary accounting workers are being hired to reconcile bank statements and review all the accounts containing the undispersed money due former inmates.

Montee said the Corrections Department audit was the most significant of the two she released Thursday as part of a series of 23 audits of various city departments and agencies.

Thursday's second audit involved Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. The chief finding: The airport could save $1.8 million a year if it closed one of its three fire houses. Montee said the Federal Aviation Authority has determined that only two are necessary at Lambert, given its current air traffic, and has said that the airport's south firehouse could be closed.

However, the auditor acknowledged that Lambert has no control over those fire houses, which are under the jurisdiction of the St. Louis Fire Department. Fire officials replied that three fire houses are needed at the airport.

In any case, Montee indicated that the latest audits did not uncover as many problems as some earlier city audits, notably her release in late June of an audit documenting embezzlement in the city streets department. Overall, she said the chief problem with many city departments has been "lax record keeping."

However, she also has praised city officials for their willingness, and swift action, to make improvements in response to the audit findings.

Thursday's audits leave eight yet to be completed or released, including one of Mayor Francis Slay's office. Montee said the last ones should be made public by February.

The 23 city audits are in response to a successful petition drive by the city's Green Party. Montee said her office is receiving more and more such petitions from around the state, seeking audits of local communities or counties. While emphasizing that she's not complaining, she noted that her department is -- like the rest of state government -- strapped for cash and employees.

The department saw its budget cut 5 percent for the current fiscal year, which she said amounts to pay for eight employees. Her office hasn't laid anyone off, Montee said, but it has reorganized and revamped operations so employees can do more duties. Some vacancies also haven't been filled.

Montee noted that her office also is participating in a federal program to monitor state and local spending of federal stimulus money, which she said is being done in stages as staff can fit in the work during other duties.

A Democrat, Montee -- an accountant and a lawyer -- is running for re-election next year. So far, she has two announced Republican rivals: Lawyer Thomas Schweich, a former member of the Bush administration, and state Rep. Allen Icet, R-Wildwood and chairman of the House Budget Committee.

With all the work her office is doing, she said, Montee observed that she preferred not knowing yet who her chief Republican opponent will be.

Montee, by the way, was calling from Cape Girardeau, where she is slated early Friday to address the local Chamber of Commerce.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.