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    Did automated audits replace Georgia’s ethics auditors? Nope.

     

    A blog about public records and accountability

    By JIM WALLS

    A former state ethics official says Georgia doesn’t need all the auditors and investigators it once had because auditing of politicians’ financial disclosures is now automated. This would seem to refute some of my recent findings about weak ethics enforcement in Georgia.

    Except, of course, that it’s not true.

    In my wonky world of ethics and transparency issues, automated auditing would be news. The Campaign Finance Commission last year was exploring ways to start that in Georgia, but the project was never completed.

    Auditing financial disclosures is an important tool for enforcing disclosure laws. Without it, as I noted last week in the Georgia scores for the State Integrity Investigation, elected officials and candidates can easily omit information about their financial interests and campaign donations. If nobody’s checking those reports, voters would be none the wiser.

    Rick Thompson

    A few years back, the commission had three auditors and three investigators, but budget cuts have reduced that number to a single auditor. That person was assigned to audit a random 10 percent of disclosures this year, but the commission was recently informed she couldn’t achieve that goal because of other demands on her time.

    Rick Thompson, the commission’s former executive secretary, told WABE-FM recently:

    “At one time we had numerous auditors, but that was before everything went electronically filed. One of the great things about everything being filed electronically at the commission is it saves time, it saves money and all the auditing is automatically done. With the system that’s in place there, ‘cause I was instrumental in directing the individuals under me to build the system, there are all kinds of automatic searches and reports that can be ran from key data entered into the servers. So it cuts out the need for individuals sitting with a ten key using old-style auditing skills. You don’t need that many people.”

    Thompson’s reasoning, he told me in an email this morning, is that the commission’s electronic filing system saves auditors time because they can now do calculations electronically without using a ten key.

    Double-checking a filer for error in addition and subtraction, I would submit, is grade-school arithmetic. It is not auditing.

    Stacey Kalberman, Thompson’s successor at the commission, was planning a more aggressive type of auditing before she lost her job last summer. IT Director Reggie Boswell planned to write software that could compare, for example, names or addresses to flag multiple donations from the same source that might exceed the legal limit — an issue that embroiled the gubernatorial campaigns of Nathan Deal and John Oxendine in 2010.

    “Auditing was the weakest part of the commission as far as I was concerned,” Kalberman said Tuesday, “not because our auditor wasn’t good, but because of our resources.”

    That software would have been “for simple things, not for complicated things,” she said. “You can’t possibly program for the more complicated stuff … the stuff that actually takes some discretion to look at.”

    Kalberman left before the commission could finish the project, and now Boswell has, too. Holly LaBerge, the commission’s current executive secretary, confirmed Tuesday that the commission does not employ automated auditing now.

    The commission’s e-filing system does allow journalists and citizens one way to “audit” campaign finance data. You can use the search tools to track down a single campaign contribution and then check whether it was reported properly by the donor and the recipient.

    I’ve found evidence that way that allowed me to report that TitleMax and a PAC funded by a Missouri developer failed to disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars of campaign contributions in Georgia. I’ve also found tens of thousands in campaign donation from PACs that Reps. Rashad Taylor, Pam Stephenson and others have not reported receiving.

    I was also, by comparing expense records, able to report recently that Sen. Don Balfour had claimed mileage reimbursements for commuting to Atlanta on days when lobbyists said they had paid for his meal or entertainment at out-of-state conferences.

    That sort of auditing requires a human being — not an electronic calculator — who has the time and the diligence to do the research.

    Check back here in a few days and I’ll explain how Georgia could appear to have fallen from a national ranking of 7th for financial disclosure in 2010 to 50th in 2012. That’s another criticism of the State Integrity Investigation that isn’t true.

     

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