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State Auditor: MLK Commission has not fixed its issues

State Auditor Brian Colon

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

State Auditor Brian Colón on Tuesday publicly took the Martin Luther King Jr. State Commission to task for failing to remedy a host of shortcomings highlighted in audits going back to 2015.

In a news release and a separate letter to the commission’s board members and Executive Director Leonard Waites, Colón pointed to weaknesses in internal controls and a failure to provide supporting documentation for expenses.

Colón asked Waites to provide him with a copy of the commission’s policies and procedures that have been implemented to address specific problems pointed out in the independent audits.

Waites told the Journal that he has already instituted policies and procedures to ensure the financial integrity of the agency and will provide those in writing to the State Auditor’s Office before Dec. 21; however, Waites also said he was taken aback by Colón’s letter.

“I have had six years of audits done in 12 months from my office. So, for him to make that statement after he or his office approved all of those audits, is really kind of tough. I worked very hard to get those audits done.”

Waites, who took over as the commission’s executive director in 2017, declined to provide further comment.

MLK Commission Executive Director Leonard Waites

Colón fired back, saying that Waites apparently has a “fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to approve an audit.”

“I approve an audit to be released to the public; it doesn’t mean that I approve of the commission’s or his failure to address the issues that have been plaguing this agency for the entirety of his term as the executive director, and two years before that,” Colón said.

Every state agency is required to hire an independent public accountant to conduct an annual audit. The completed audit is then submitted to the State Auditor’s Office for review and approval for public release.

The audits from fiscal years 2015 and 2016 contained a “disclaimer of opinion,” meaning that the agency being audited did not submit enough information for the audit to be completed or for the auditor to arrive at conclusions.

The audits from 2017 through 2020 improved to “unmodified” status, meaning financial statements were presented fairly. But a lack of proper internal controls and other shortcomings continue to exist.

The fact that all the audits were late is a problem in itself, Colón said. More specifically, the audits identified issues with an absence of documentation to support allowable expenses, failure to create purchase orders in advance of payments, purchase orders submitted after the date of invoice, lack of verification that goods and services were received prior to payment and failure to use correct account codes.

“These are all findings in the audit that for me are red flags and there are no internal procedures that have corrected those errors,” Colón said.

The mission of the MLK State Commission is to promote the late civil rights leader’s philosophy of nonviolence, unity and opportunity for all through a host of programs. The commission has also conducted MLK youth leadership conferences and organizes events around Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The former executive director of the commission and two others were convicted in 2019 of felony embezzlement and fraud of agency funds. The offenses occurred from 2013 through 2015.

In view of that, “the successor to that organization should have a heightened level of concern for internal procedures and controls, and making sure they did everything possible to restore people’s faith in their financial house,” Colón said.

He also noted that the MLK State Commission is not a large agency in terms of staff or budget. “They don’t conduct 5,000 transactions a year, like a bigger agency, so there shouldn’t be this many problems.”

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