County officials push forensic audit
KANKAKEE — Two Kankakee County officials are calling for a special in-depth audit of the county’s books. But another says such an analysis would be a “witch hunt for political purposes.”
In their successful 2016 campaigns, both State’s Attorney Jim Rowe and auditor Jake Lee promised to call for a forensic audit of county finances. Both still say they favor one.
Throughout the last couple of months, Lee has recommended such an audit at meetings of the county board’s finance committee. But he has received no response from members.
Investopedia defines a forensic audit as “an examination and evaluation of a firm’s or individual’s financial information for use as evidence in court.”
But neither Rowe nor Lee is suggesting they know of criminal activity in the county government.
“People are afraid of forensic audits because it’s the use of accounting knowledge for courtroom purposes. What you get out of a forensic audit is best practices,” Lee said in an interview. “For anyone who says we cannot afford a forensic audit, I say we cannot afford not to do it.”
Lee pointed to what he called the county’s “illegal” shifting of functions from the auditor’s office to a newly created finance department more than a dozen years ago. He noted a state law that requires the auditor’s office be in charge of “general accounting,” although the finance department handles that responsibility.
“When you have a county that operates that way inherently, I have to ask the question, ‘What else are we doing that’s not proper?’” Lee said. “The way we operate is inherently risky. We know there are known violations of a statute. If the county was willing to do a forensic audit, it would provide the county government with more credibility. People will have a little more trust in the county government.”
To control the costs of such an audit, Lee said, the county should target “high-risk” accounts.
In an email, Rowe said he “strongly” supports a forensic audit. He said he and Lee have had conversations about such an audit with outside auditing firms and Herscher native Adam Andrzejewski, a national transparency advocate who runs OpenTheBooks.com.
Rowe said such an audit is a taxpayer’s best watchdog, even if it’s performed every five years on randomly selected accounts. The analysis, he said, can be valuable in minimizing future risk of loss by exposing gaps in processes.
“The chairman and auditor have been diligent in working to correct county policies to conform with best practices, but a forensic audit every few years would be the epitome of transparency for taxpayers,” Rowe said.
Rowe said he suggests the county start the audit with fiscal years 2014 to 2016, noting those were the years the county laid off sheriff’s deputies and prosecutors. After that, the county should hold regular forensic audits every few years, he said.
He said he wanted to know how the county got into such dire financial straits, making sure it never happens again.
“Kankakee County is still recovering from that debacle of the prior county administration; I don’t think it is too far-fetched to believe that had they conducted a forensic audit back then, they could have seen that mess coming and been better prepared for it,” Rowe said.
However, County Board chairman Andy Wheeler, R-Kankakee, disputed the idea of doing a forensic audit without evidence of criminal wrongdoing.
“The implication is that there is a smoking gun or some irregularity in the county government that demands this kind of taxpayer investment. This is what the public thinks when they hear ‘forensic audit,’ that something has been uncovered that requires this substantial deep dive and associated taxpayer investment,” Wheeler wrote in an email.
Wheeler, who became county board chairman in December 2016, said nothing “nefarious” has occurred since he has been chairman and nothing other than bad financial decisions happened before that.
He said he received information that a forensic audit for two county accounts, the tort and general funds, would cost about $100,000. Because the county has many more funds, that amount could rise to $250,000, Wheeler said.
“(T)o waste upwards of an estimated $250,000 to audit the entire set of county funds on a whim is exactly the definition of a witch hunt for political purposes,” Wheeler wrote.
The county, like most government entities, has outside annual audits on all of its accounts. Wheeler said those audits identify weak points in all the departments, and the county has addressed the issues.
‘I HAVE A JOB TO DO’
In his first emailed response to the Daily Journal’s questions about the forensic audit, Wheeler focused mostly on Lee, rather than Rowe, although both propose such an audit. Since 2017, Wheeler and Lee have been in a number of disputes, including the auditor’s office’s duties.
Wheeler said the county has an auditor “who can and should be performing these kinds of audits if he feels there is a reason to do so.”
“I welcome the auditor to bring forth any credible evidence of intentional theft or misappropriation of taxpayer funds, and we will then take appropriate action that may include a forensic audit,” Wheeler said in his email. “But I won’t spend a quarter million dollars we don’t have to fulfill someone else’s campaign promises without any indication of wrongdoing.”
He added, “Mr. Lee could be the one to bring me something specific that would justify the investment in something tied to criminal evidence. Otherwise, this is purely another politically motivated attack on the entire county government’s integrity. Not just the board, but everyone — all department heads that submit claims.”
Wheeler mentioned Rowe briefly in his first email, saying he had discussed a forensic audit for the years 2012 and 2016 with the state’s attorney.
But then he resumed his focus on Lee: “While I have no credible evidence of wrongdoing, if the county auditor wishes to discharge the duties of his office in this endeavor, it would be an appropriate action. We need a county auditor to audit something relevant, and this would be a great service to the county. He has that authority to do so, and a CPA on staff to help him with the proper procedures.”
In a later email, Wheeler gave more attention to Rowe. “I have told him that if he feels there is something wrong with the past administrations, something material that points to some kind of theft or impropriety, then I will support him pursuing it,” Wheeler said. “He relies upon evidence to take action, so I am sure he understands my position. In any event, nobody uses an expensive forensic audit to look at operations. It’s only deployed for criminal reasons. That’s why it’s good political fodder before, and after elections. I am not sure these two know how much they insult the current employees and department heads we have, as well as our professional outside auditors and other examiners, when they call for these kinds of things without evidence.
“It’s a microcosm of Washington, in my opinion. Use others for political gain. To hell with all of that. I have a job to do, for the right reasons, and then I can exit this frustrating, self-serving universe of ego. But I’m not leaving until I fix the finances completely. Then the good old boys can run it into the ground again. I’m not here for a career in politics. It disgusts me,” the chairman said.