By Barry Erwin, Council for a Better Louisiana
One of the first things Buddy Roemer did when he became governor of Louisiana in 1988 was create the Office of Inspector General. He figured, correctly, that the state needed an independent watchdog agency to weed out corruption and misuse of state funds.
Four years later, when former Governor Edwin Edwards and former Klansman David Duke knocked him out of the runoff for re-election, Roemer fought to maintain the office. He got Edwards to promise that if elected he would keep the Office of Inspector General alive. That surprised a lot of people, since Edwards himself had been the target of various federal investigations and later went to jail. But Edwards kept his word, and continued to fund the inspector general position.
Given that history, it caught almost everybody off guard when a couple of weeks ago the Louisiana House of Representatives agreed to an amendment to the 2013 state budget bill that completely eliminated funding for the Office of Inspector General. That’s not a good thing.
Oddly enough, it came totally out of nowhere, with little discussion and no real political controversy surrounding the office. In fact, over the years it’s done a pretty good job. In its latest annual report to the Legislature, the Office of Inspector General reported identifying $3.2 million in fraud and waste, prompting a number of criminal prosecutions. Its budget is $1.7 million. Not a bad return on investment, but that’s what’s being cut.
The office is not exactly the sexiest one in state government. While some investigations resulted in high-profile cases, many simply reveal the tawdry activities of people trying to bilk state and local governments out of large and small amounts of taxpayer dollars. But a glance at some of the agency’s findings over the last couple of years shows the clear need for a strong and persistent government watchdog.
- A Program Manager with the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities obtained an $8,000 bribe to influence a grant payment of $13,130.
- Employees with the Department of Health and Hospitals received a total of $407,000 for some 23,000 hours of questionable overtime. One employee reported working 41.5 hours in a 42 hour period. Another claimed to have worked 59 hours in a 66-hour time span. That wasn’t during Hurricane Katrina, either.
- In 2009 four people were found to be holding two jobs simultaneously in state government. That’s illegal. In addition, the work schedules in their jobs overlapped, raising the question of whether they even worked all the hours for which they were paid. One of them made $95,000 in one job and $53,000 in the other.
- Two Southern University employees concocted a scheme to embezzle $157,366 through fraudulent invoices from fictitious companies.
There are more examples, but you get the picture. Louisiana needs a strong and independent Inspector General to work in collaboration with the Legislative Auditor and other law enforcement agencies to protect the public’s interest. Removing funding for the office from the budget is clearly a mistake.
Unfortunately, time is running short as the current legislative session ends June 4. Those who would like to weigh in can click here to send the Louisiana Corruption Risk Report Card to their legislators and Gov. Jindal, and tell them to maintain a fully-funded office of inspector general to protect citizens from fraud, waste, and corruption.
Find out more about issues of ethics and accountability on the Council for a Better Louisiana website.