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Audit questions spending on sexual assault programs

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Unsigned contracts. A no-bid contract for the husband of a project director. Employees collecting double salaries. Unsupported or unallowable costs for hotels, airlines and more.

Those were among the findings in an audit of the New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, a state and federally funded nonprofit organization working statewide to provide services to sexual assault victims, prevent sexual assault, and train physicians, police and others on sexual assault.

The audit, conducted by the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General and released last month, questioned $1.3 million in spending of grant money and other funding from the federal Office of Violence Against Women.

The audit came on the heels of other financial reviews that found widespread problems at the New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, based in Albuquerque.

Kim Alaburda, executive director of the coalition, downplayed the audit findings, saying the organization has documentation showing all federal funds were properly spent and is working with the Office of Violence Against Women to resolve the findings.

Alaburda also said in a telephone interview that the coalition has implemented a new accounting system and now has a full-time accountant.

She said the Office of Violence Against Women recognizes the group does important work. “Thankfully, they’re allowing us to continue to do that,” she said.

Since 2007, the coalition has received $4.1 million in funding from the Office of Violence Against Women, according to the audit by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General. The group also receives funding from the New Mexico Department of Health – $1.2 million in the state budget year that ended June 30 and $1.5 million so far this fiscal year.

As part of its audit, the Office of the Inspector General reviewed independent audits of the coalition for fiscal years 2010 and 2011, which Alaburda said were conducted simultaneously.

The independent auditors reported 16 findings, including lax internal controls over disbursements, cash assets, credit cards, travel costs, employee compensation and more.

The Office of the Inspector General said that because of the poor internal controls, it reviewed 289 financial transactions to determine whether they were allowable, reasonable, and in compliance with the terms and conditions of the coalition’s federal funding.

Among the audit’s findings and the coalition’s responses to the Office of the Inspector General:

• 14 contracts and four grants awarded by the coalition that weren’t signed by the contractors or grant recipients. The contracts and grants totaled $634,000. Some contracts were marked approved by phone or email. (The coalition said that New Mexico is a rural state and that, prior to 2012, its practice was to send and receive contracts via electronic communication. It said it now has a more formal contracting process.)

• Three no-bid contracts totaling $40,000 awarded to the husband of a project director for a federal grant. (The coalition said the spouse has a doctoral degree, extensive experience in providing support to crime victims, and had worked as a volunteer and contractor for the group for more than 10 years.)

• $376,000 in unallowable compensation for two employees collecting full-time salaries from each of two federal grants. (The coalition said the employees were identified in grant budget documents approved by the Office of Violence Against Women and the jobs were reported to the Office of Violence Against Women as part time. Alaburda told me each of the employees earned a total of about $50,000 from both grants.)

• $13,000 in unsupported or unallowable benefit costs for employees. (The coalition said it would provide documentation to support the costs.)

• $55,000 in personnel expenses that weren’t supported by time sheets. (The coalition said it has revised policies and procedures to ensure employees provide documentation before being paid.)

• $116,000 in other unsupported or unallowable costs, including $55,000 in payments attributed to Alaburda, payments to American Express, and expenses for airlines and hotels. The audit didn’t specify travel destinations. (The coalition disagreed that the costs were inappropriate.)

• Drawdowns from one federal grant exceeded documented expenditures by $91,000. (The coalition said its accountant had prepared a document showing drawdowns matched expenses.)

• A contractor paid $225 an hour to prepare and conduct forensic interviews in sexual assault cases.

The coalition is overseen by a seven-member board headed by Toby Chavez, a social worker with the Indian Health Service in Santa Fe, Alaburda said.

Alaburda said she has been executive director of the group for all but a few years since its founding in 1984. Her compensation in the 2011 tax year was nearly $98,000, according to an IRS filing. The group has about a dozen employees.

In a written response to the Office of the Inspector General, Alaburda said the group’s board in March 2012 approved new financial controls for the coalition.

“The implementation of these internal controls resulted in a successful 2012 audit with minimal findings,” she wrote in the letter dated July 1.

But the Office of the Inspector General said the independent auditors identified 11 findings, many of which were in earlier audits and mirrored findings of the inspector general audit.

Alaburda said in the interview with me that the coalition was well on its way to improving its financial controls when the Office of the Inspector General began its audit a year ago.

“The system is entirely overhauled now,” she said. “We were grateful for them to show us things that need to be improved.”

Since the audit, the Office of Violence Against Women has awarded the coalition additional federal funding, she said.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at tcole@abqjournal.com or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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