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LA DPS needs fewer excuses, more action

Transparency isn’t optional. Excuse-making should be. Louisiana’s Department of Public Safety needs to understand this, the latest audit of the agency and its constituent parts shows.

This week, the Legislative Auditor issued that report, which proved so fertile that the Baton Rouge Advocate found material for two separate stories about it. One highlighted that the agency couldn’t document over $2 million spent on patrolling New Orleans’ Vieux Carré.

After a surge in crime in 2014, the state began sending in state troopers and allocating state taxpayer money to fund partially this purpose. The fiscal year 2017 allotment DPS recorded all went to agency-wide fuel expenses, which the auditor flagged as questionable.

DPS responded by saying it really did spend it all on activities related to patrol in the French Quarter, but that it was too burdensome to document it all specifically. Expenses racked up but the money didn’t become available specifically for that purpose until later in the period. So, it said it spent its own general funding (and, it claimed, well in excess of the apportionment due, even including a separate city tax collected in the neighborhood) on those activities, and then redirected the specific funds to pay back itself.

Accepting that as fact, tolerating that creates a dangerous standard. Taking people’s word for things recently has gotten DPS into trouble, such as payroll fraud and vacationing disguised as professional development. It creates way too much opportunity for illegal use of funds that only proper documentation can deter.

Yes, DPS conducts many activities in a highly decentralized way that make for difficult documentation, and extra effort and likely expense would have to come by going back and making ledger entries to properly expense the dollars. But DPS owes taxpayers that transparency.

It also needs to take ownership of its errors, something its Office of Motor Vehicles appeared unwilling to do in the case of employees accused of stealing nearly $100,000. Another Advocate article observed that the audit noted OMV had insufficient cash management control, as well as pointing out this continued an annual streak of finding such behavior from 2014. In addition, a contract employee also allegedly engaged in similar behavior; the state farms out routine OMV matters to private concerns.

OMV Commissioner Karen St. Germain, a Democrat former legislator, wrote in response that the laxness in part came from factors “not solely within control” of the agency. She cited ancient software that prevented sophisticated theft detection and staffing reductions blamed on the previous administration, that of Republican Bobby Jindal.

In fact, the agency proactively could have reduced the possibility of malfeasance regardless. The software issue had come in front of successive governors for years, but never backed in the executive budget. St. Germain even admitted she had pitched the idea to her appointer, Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards, for 2018 but he passed on putting it in. If it had been a real priority for her, having led the office almost from the day of Edwards’ inauguration, she could have seen that through – especially as the agency benefitted from fee hikes right before she took office (which then largely got diverted to other state police activities).

And when St. Germain blamed budgeting decisions while she served, she therefore blames herself. She voted for six of the Jindal-era spending plans, abstaining for one and voting against another. And her argument further rings hollow when she outlined a response involving reconfiguration of staffing, proving she could do more with less. Additionally, if personnel shortages really caused such problems, she should have advocated more effectively to change that in the budget process; after all, the underlying problem had exhibited symptoms every year before she even assumed the job.

Taxpayers deserve not blame-shifting or excuses, but results. DPS needs to stop trying to find cover and to start taking care of business on these issues that threaten its integrity and wastes money.

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