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Audits find DSS lacks records of many transactions

Audits of two programs run by Mecklenburg County's Department of Social Services highlight problems that resulted from sloppiness at best and criminal behavior at worst. Mecklenburg County and an outside firm were called in to audit DSS in March after two employees were accused of taking $110,000 from a charity the department sponsored. DSS Director Mary Wilson requested an audit of the Giving Tree, a program that received $162,000 in donations last year to provide gifts to children in foster homes. The county's audit concluded there were too many missing receipts and not enough records to tell whether most of that money was actually spent on gifts to foster children. Wilson, who has served as the director of DSS for about a year, says the public's confidence in the department has been shaken. "To lose their trust because of, perhaps, poor management, poor bookkeeping, poor record-keeping, or the worst case scenario misappropriation is just very disappointing," says Wilson. Wilson presented the results of the audit to county commissioners last night. She said the county has asked Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police to help determine whether DSS employees took the money or just got sloppy and didn't document how it was spent. An outside firm also audited a program that gave vouchers to caretakers to help buy foster children clothes and other necessities. The report found that nearly all of the transactions the firm examined had problems: purchases of unauthorized goods, no supervisor approval, and, again, missing receipts. The county's finance director Dena Diorio said the county hopes the investigation doesn't end with the audit. "If the records are available and allow it, we would like to conduct a more comprehensive analysis to determine if there are any patterns where the same individual or individuals were not following policies or procedures and, therefore, take appropriate action," said Diorio. A broader audit of DSS indicates the department's problems extend beyond those programs that account for about 1% of DSS's budget. The report found that the department ran programs from an account that should be used exclusively for Social Security beneficiary expenses and the department had two credit card accounts that were not authorized by the county and commissioners as required. County Manager Harry Jones said he was disturbed with the findings, but DSS has addressed them appropriately. "I want to assure this board and the public that we have fixed and we have strengthened our fiscal controls and we will continue to pursue unresolved questions about the voucher program. We will also pursue aggressively, and I want to be clear on that, any evidence of suspected misappropriation to the appropriate conclusion," explained Jones. Jones said that could mean criminal charges. The county's audit committee is set to take up the matter in the next couple weeks. Commissioner Dan Murrey chairs that committee. "It's important that we really dig into this and try to understand exactly what happened and why and what you've done to fix it. Sounds like you've done a lot to try to remedy the situation," said Murrey. DSS has stopped the Giving Tree and voucher programs until the investigations are complete. All of the department's transactions are now processed through the county's finance department. Wilson also says she has hired a financial director to strengthen the department's policies and practices.