Op-Ed

Kentucky voices: A Kentucky corruption fighter's report after 8 years on the job

As I look back on my eight-year tenure as Kentucky's Auditor of Public Accounts, it is my hope that the legacy of those years lies not in the series of controversial audit results we released, but in a heightened sense of accountability on the part of those who hold the public's trust across the commonwealth.

I leave office proud of the record we established and with deep respect for the outstanding professional staff of the Auditor's Office, who stepped up to every challenge with diligence and integrity. We learned valuable lessons along the way.

In the area of local government audits, our work resulted in 35 criminal prosecutions of public officials or employees across the state. That is not a number I am proud of as a Kentuckian, because it means there are still pockets in the state where a culture of corruption has hampered progress. We took seriously our responsibility to help break that cycle.

What are the lessons learned from those troubling local audits?

First, it is vital that every local government take seriously the establishment and enforcement of local ethics codes and proper policies and controls. But even more importantly, our citizens must expect more and demand more of their local elected leaders. They must become positive forces for change at the grassroots level when they suspect abuse of the public trust and when they are choosing elected officials.

We conducted a high-profile series of special audits of board-governed organizations, including the Blue Grass Airport, Kentucky League of Cities, Kentucky Association of Counties, Kentucky Retirement Systems, Passport Health Plan and Metropolitan Sewer District in Louisville. These audits contained disturbing and, in some cases, shocking results, ranging from conflicts of interest and excessive spending to questionable procurement practices and weak board oversight.

What are the lessons learned from those board audits?

We found that in too many cases, boards of public or quasi-governmental agencies lack a basic understanding of their legal and fiduciary responsibilities. We learned that there is a gap between the accountability demanded from government agencies and that required from agencies which operate at arm's length from direct government control. And we learned what a vital role the media can play in exposing the need for change.

There has been dramatic and positive change resulting from this series of audits. All of them resulted in significant changes in personnel and leadership. Each organization has responded by taking aggressive steps to adopt the audit recommendations. And on a broader front, dozens of public and non-profit boards across the state have sought to learn from the audits we conducted, benefiting from a document produced by our office detailing recommendations for public and non-profit board governance.

These controversies should not have a chilling effect for citizens willing to step forward and serve on public boards. We have hundreds of such volunteers across the state who serve admirably and selflessly. Our legacy to them is a set of clearer directions and higher expectations.

We also conducted a series of audits that dealt with entities contracting with government, including Aramark which provides food in our prisons, Dismas Charities which operates halfway houses for the state corrections system, and Mountain Water District in Pikeville which has privatized the entire operation of a public utility.

What are the lessons learned from those privatization audits?

We learned that the state has not always provided adequate monitoring of contract compliance or required enough transparency from private vendors. At the local level, procurement policies are not always stringent enough or adequately enforced to ensure the public is protected. Steps are being taken to address many of these issues as a result of our audit work.

As we see the trend toward more privatization, it is critical that government officials recognize they can contract out services, but they cannot contract away responsibility. Entering into a contract for the delivery of a government responsibility demands more oversight and accountability, not less.

The last and best lesson learned is that the majority of our public leaders are working hard to do the right thing. During my eight years as auditor, our office was responsible for nearly 5,000 audits. What created headlines were the reports that exposed fraud or abuse of public funds, mismanagement or wasteful spending. But for every scandal our office uncovered, there are countless decent people in the public arena going about their work honorably every day.

The bottom line is Kentucky simply has too few resources and so many critical investment needs, we can't afford for a single dollar to be lost to waste or abuse. These past years have provided valuable lessons that can help all of our citizens demand higher levels of accountability from those who hold their trust.

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