Audit of state legislature reveals little
HARRISBURG - The certified public accountant hired to produce annual audit reports of legislative spending attached a curious disclaimer to its fiscal 2008-09 report.
"We were not engaged to perform an audit of the General Assembly's internal control over financial reporting," said Ernst & Young LLP. The firm added it would not express an opinion "on the effectiveness of the General Assembly's internal control over financial reporting."
What Ernst & Young auditors observed with this statement is that they cannot vouch that lawmakers spent money for the purpose they stated it was for.
The lack of a comprehensive audit of the legislative branch creates a major public accountability problem. The three-year "Bonusgate" investigation into legislative branch corruption has focused on how millions of dollars in accounts controlled by legislative leaders in the last decade was allegedly siphoned off for illegal campaign purposes.
Former House Democratic leader Michael Veon was convicted last month of using $1.4 million of taxpayers' money to give staffers bonuses for work on legislative campaigns. Rep. John Perzel, R-172, Philadelphia, a former House Speaker, and nine others await trial on charges of using $10 million of taxpayers' money for sophisticated computer technology to help Republican candidates win legislative races.
Pennsylvanians lack detailed information about how millions of dollars in legislative accounts are spent. The report by Ernst & Young breaks down the spending by vague descriptions. A number of accounts are described as being for "incidental" and "contingent" expenses. The report provides no details about how much is spent on the legal, though controversial, per diems which lawmakers receive as reimbursement for daily expenses for which no receipts are required.
The latest 2008-09 audit report shows that Senate floor leaders Robert Mellow, D-22, Peckville, and Dominic Pileggi, R-9, Chester, each controlled caucus operations accounts of $27.6 million.
The appropriation for the "special leadership accounts" controlled by successive House Majority Leaders Bill DeWeese, D-50, Waynesburg, and Todd Eachus, D-116, Hazleton, was $10.8 million. House Minority Leader Sam Smith, R-66, Punxsutawney, controlled a similar $8.9 million account.
The Legislative Audit Advisory Commission, an eight-member body with four lawmakers and four appointees who are not lawmakers, hires the CPA firm and oversees auditing issues.
The commission is moving to tighten the financial controls that Ernst & Young referred to, said Rep. Joseph Shapiro, D-153, Montgomery County, the chairman. Recent changes include closing checkbooks held by House committee chairs and listing for the first time legislative spending by 17 broad categories.
The commission setup provides for outside eyes on the audit reports through the four appointees, said Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati, R-25, Jefferson County.
Lawmakers plan additional steps to make financial information available to the public, said Eachus citing House passage of a bill to post salaries and contract information on one website.
"We need to make sure we are responsible with taxpayers' money," he added.
Some lawmakers call for new auditing procedures.
Rep. Robert Freeman, D-136, Easton, has sponsored legislation to give the state auditor general authority to audit legislative spending.
"I think it is imperative that we provide greater oversight over how tax dollars are spent by the Legislature," said Freeman. "Requiring the elected auditor general to conduct these audits, as opposed to the current practice of hiring an outside firm, will ensure a more public assessment of how the Legislature spends the money it allocates for its operations."
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