Emails show cooperation lacking
NILES – Some city officials did not cooperate with state auditors trying to conduct financial and performance audits, according to records obtained by the Tribune Chronicle.
The lack of cooperation from Treasurer Robert Swauger and Auditor Chuck Nader set off a series of terse emails from Mayor Ralph Infante and City Council President Robert Marino, who were responding to state auditors expressing their frustration.
Infante sent the following email, reprinted verbatim here, to ”council members and officials” on Nov. 15:
”To All Listed, On October 24, 2013 I Forwarded This e Mail To All Of You Listed. Erik Holesko From The State Auditors Office Still Has 3 Issues That Need To Be Addressed, The Only One That Has Responded Is Terry Dull. Please Get These Issues Addressed As Soon As Possible Or I Will Take Further Action.”
A day earlier, Marino sent the following email, also reprinted verbatim here, to auditors of state, whom he refers to as AOS:
”Recognizing that you are still awaiting information and because I am not aware of any legal mechanism available to city council relative to compelling other city-wide elected officials to comply with your request, I encourage you to utilize:
”ANY AND ALL LEGAL AUTHORITY AVAILABLE TO THE AOS TO COLLECT THIS INFORMATION …
”I am certain, they like me are and displeased that the AOS has repeatedly had to request these records to no avail.”
Frustration on the part of state auditors has continued into 2014, as evidenced by comments made last week by Niles Councilman at-large and Finance Committee Chairman Steve Papalas to the Tribune Chronicle.
”There were a couple of instances that really got under my craw,” Papalas said. ”The state auditors had set up a meeting between the auditors, Mr. Nader and Mr. Swauger. The preparations were all made, and Mr. Swauger and Mr. Nader never showed up.”
The meeting Papalas referred to took place on Feb. 4, when audit manager April Strickland from the state auditor’s office came to the city to review financial records for April, May and June of 2012.
In an email to city officials on Feb. 5, senior audit manager Erik Holesko from the state auditor’s office noted that ”yesterday’s review of records did not clarify the situation, since Bob Swauger and Chuck were not there to answer questions.”
Papalas sternly addressed Swauger and Nader in front of City Council later in February.
”One of the department heads (Swauger) stated he had a reason for not being (at the meeting),” Papalas said. ”I think maybe out of courtesy, that person could have contacted the auditors ahead of time. The other person (Nader) did not respond at all, and I think that is embarrassing.
”I think it is going to be extensive if we keep having meetings with the auditors and the appropriate people from the city don’t show up, and I think it’s unprofessional. This has to stop, and when City Council needs work provided by department heads so that we can show our results and we don’t get that, that’s embarrassing and unprofessional, and I really don’t appreciate it.”
Papalas’ comments did not seem to spark change in the city’s auditor and treasurer departments, as evidenced by an email conversation between Strickland and Nader on March 14 about beginning the city’s 2013 financial audit. In the conversation, Nader said ”once again, I want you to hold off coming on site until the middle of April. I am sorry about this, but that is what I want.”
Hours later, Marino sent a followup email to Strickland, inquiring about the unusual nature of Nader’s request to delay a financial audit. Strickland replied to Marino quickly in an email that ”(the state) typically like to get started on our December 31, audits in late January so starting in March is later than we like already.”
According to Assistant Public Affairs Director and Press Secretary Carrie Bartunek of the state auditor’s office, the 2013 financial audit officially began March 21, 2014. The 2012 financial audit officially began March 26, 2013.
In an interview on Thursday, Nader said that his reluctance to invite the state auditors to his office stemmed from a lack of information he felt he could provide.
”We always have a third party company prepare the information for (the state auditors) and they handle all our conversions from cash records to an accrual basis,” Nader said, noting that the deadline to file their information was May 30. ”Their work was not done yet at that point, and I was telling them that if they held off coming to my office, then they would have a lot more information to use.”
Marino noted on Wednesday that he never received an explanation from Nader.
An April 1 email correspondence between Strickland and Marino demonstrates more unfulfilled requests for financial information:
”We are having some trouble getting the December 31, 2013 bank reconciliations,” Strickland wrote. ”It is now April, there should be no reason we cannot get the December 2013 bank records to view. We were told early last week that (Swauger) would be in to see us and that did not happen.”
When asked why he had not delivered the requested information to Strickland, Swauger said that the ongoing investigation into his office prevented him from delivering accurate information.
”I’m not going to flub a reconciliation and tell the state auditors that our books are in balance,” Swauger said.
In an interview with the Tribune Chronicle, Marino expressed frustration with his lack of power as it pertains to assisting the state auditors.
”We told (the state auditors) multiple times that they need to go get the records they need (from city officials) and use all the power they have,” Marino said. ”We can’t force (Nader and Swauger) to cooperate; we can’t tell them what to do. They’re elected officials, and they are supposed to be responsible for what goes on in their departments.”
At the direction of state auditors, the city began digitizing its financial operations. Currently, the city tracks its finances using a paper system, which Swauger, Marino and Papalas all agreed is ”antiquated.”
Nader said that his office has not modernized its operation partly because of the city’s decision to upgrade its utility systems in the mid-2000s.
”Maybe we should have done this sooner, but we wanted to make sure that (the utility department) was straight before worrying about the next department,” Nader said.
In an interview on Thursday, Infante said, ”Chuck needs to worry about (the auditor’s office), and Bob needs to worry about (the treasurer’s office), because look what has happened now.”
Papalas noted in an interview on Wednesday that the treasurer has not made himself available to the city’s information technology department.
In an April 23 email conversation, Marino told city officials that he expected ”the specs (from the treasurer’s office for its needs) will be verified by the Treasurer no later (than April 25). The project will move forward with an agreed upon completion date (no later than) July 15.”
Swauger still has not delivered those specs, according to Papalas.
When reached for comment Friday, Swauger said that he wished the digitizing process could be further along, but noted that he wants the best possible fit for the city.
“I believe that (the city) had a system in place, but then upon further review, we decided to go back and make sure that we’re building a system that will be viable into the future,” Swauger said. “We’re spending taxpayers’ money here, so we want to do it wisely and make sure that we’re doing our due dilligence here.”