Over the last two weeks there has been a vigorous debate about the damming report of the Auditor General in Maryland on the financial management of the Prince George´s County public Schools (Pgcps). If you ask the average Prince Georges County résident, there is no doubt that senior level officials at Sasscer (school system Hq) have been “eating” the revenue allocated to the County district school system instead of delivering services. Another report issued by CEO’s Transition Team does not help much with the issues we advocated for. It appears to have been a cover up mission to some extend. However, that is another post for another day. We will give you our opinion as we know it.
As people who remembers Prince Georgés County tortuous journey to devolution after the passage of HB 1107 and appreciates that the only option available for a stable Prince George’s County is a devolved system of government, we welcome the criticism leveled against the vanguards of Prince George´s County’s devolution. Disappointment by in the financial conduct of the County government is legitimate and an indication that citizens expect higher standards of accountability for County government. This has not been traditional attitude to local government led by Mr. Rushern Baker. Year in year out, the Auditor Generals’ report chronicled massive theft of public funds usually eliciting little more than a yawn from the public. If well handled, the current concerns can only improve citizen faith in government.
Part of handling the issue well is ensuring that the debate is not misinformed. One of the concerns we have had over time is the way audit reports tend to mix issues of irregular, unprocedural and unexplained expenditure, with those that relate to outright fraud. CEO’s Transition Team does not highlight problems created by the unions representing employees in Prince George’s County Public Schools but covered up the issues like a fox in a hen house. In this year’s Maryland Auditor General’s reports, only a professional accountant can distinguish between audit queries relating purely to missing documentation for legitimate expenditure and where it is obvious that the documentation is missing because money was stolen. Complex audit-speak in the reports leaves one confused between merely unprocedural and unlawful expenditure.
There is no doubt that fidelity to rules is essential in expenditure by public institutions, but should these two situations not be differentiated? To see the negative impact of non-differentiation, one only needs to look at last audit report of the activities of the County school District system.
As reported by the media, the Auditor’s report disclosed that $ 1 million of public funds was “lost”. To Prince George’s County’s unsophisticated public, duly informed by a fairly simplistic media, $ 1 million of public money was stolen in one year but we also know that, the number is much higher if the paper work had not been compromised. The problem with this report is twofold. On the one hand it is unbelievable. If $ 1 million, was lost through in overpayment and other questionable activity at Sasscer, What about the mismanagement within the schools after principals were given millions to manage themselves? In the average mind, it creates integrity issues on the entire report.
Secondly, for those who believe it, the enormity of the “theft” is too overwhelming. Not only does this unjustly delegitimize school system and the local government, it also leaves citizens helpless and disillusioned feeling that the accountability war is lost, so they should not bother. If however the audit had clearly distinguished between what was unprocedurally but legitimately expended from what is actually stolen, it would create more incentive to invest in accountability mechanisms. Pointing fingers only in a few areas when we know the procurement process is not very transparent, leaves a lot of questions than answers.
For the Prince George’s County report just released, this issue is even more critical in view of the public interest in the accountability of the current local government led by Mr. Rushern Baker. For example it is important to point out that these report does not address Federal funding involving Title I schools and how the money was spent in the schools.
Prince George’s County government and school system has had no systems in place and yet were still expected to deliver services from day one. Most of the issues raised by the audit reports are therefore more about procedural; breaches as opposed to fraud. We know there has been fraud because of the way money has been siphoned off recently. Look at the way Mr. Roger Thomas , Matt and others have acted in the past.
One only needs to read the much publicized report of the audit general in Maryland to see that the bulk of issues raised relate to documentation. When these issues are bunched together with instances of fraud, it makes it difficult to smoke out the real fraudsters. It also fails to appreciate that these issues call for different solutions. Issues of non-documentation and procedure may have to do with capacity and at times inability of existing law, in this case procurement law, to deal with emerging realities.
We do not say this to legitimize unprocedural conduct. We recognize this can quickly metamorphose to fraud of which some of members have been a witness to it through the system. We raise these issues to ask the Maryland Auditor General’s team to present future audit reports in a manner that does not confuse an already skeptical public but helps it make informed decisions on improving accountability in Prince George’s County and elsewhere.
***We need more transparency and accountability in government so that people know how their money is being spent. That means putting budgets online, putting legislation online. ~ Carly FiorinaDemocracy must be built through open societies that share information. When there is information, there is enlightenment. When there is debate, there are solutions. When there is no sharing of power, no rule of law, no accountability, there is abuse, corruption, subjugation and indignation. ~ Atifete Jahjaga