LINCOLN — State Auditor Mike Foley slammed a handful of state agencies Friday for stonewalling his requests for information and said he’s taking one complaint to “the boss,” Gov. Dave Heineman.
Foley, in testimony before a legislative committee, singled out the Nebraska Departments of Administrative Services, Health and Human Services and Labor as the most problematic, along with the University of Nebraska and State College System.
The auditor, who by law has access to all records of public entities, said he waited four months for HHS to comply with one records request. By contrast, he said he was granted access to similar information within a couple of days by the Nebraska Department of Roads.
Foley said he plans to meet with the governor Tuesday after the Department of Labor has failed, for 60 days, to comply with a request for information for an audit.
“At some point, when you decide they’re not playing square, you decide ‘I’m going to take this to the boss,’” he said.
The auditor called Labor and HHS the “most troubled” agencies in the state, noting that each received federal sanctions in recent months.
“They would do well to end these childish games,” Foley told members of the Legislature’s Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee.
Officials with the Labor and HHS Departments, when reached later, said that security concerns, including the accidental release of confidential information, complicated and delayed the release of the information.
State Labor Commissioner Cathy Lang said Foley wants to look at records at his office, rather than at the Labor Department, which has raised concerns about whether confidential wage and Social Security records might be seen by people other than auditors.
Lang added that federal “high risk” sanctions on her agency have been lifted. A month ago, the Labor Department was informed that it had made sufficient progress in addressing financial accounting shortcomings that dated to 2008.
Kerry Winterer, head of the HHS, said that his agency set up a customized computer program for auditors to view some agency records but later learned that the auditor wanted access to all records. That request, he said, raised questions about employee privacy, among other things.
“We are not playing games in response to the state auditor’s requests,” Winterer said.
The government committee held a wide-ranging hearing Friday to study issues of government transparency, state procurement practices and a merger of the Departments of Labor and Economic Development.
State Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, for instance, testified that he wants Nebraska to adopt a law that gives preferential treatment to bidders from Nebraska on state contracts, to keep jobs and benefits here.
But the fireworks Friday were reserved for Foley’s criticism of state agencies.
Bo Botelho, an attorney for the Department of Administrative Services, testified that his agency had some record-keeper problems that had prevented swift response to a state auditor’s request for state contract information, but he denied that it was intentional or that the agency was uncooperative.
“We were slow. It wasn’t because we were trying to hide some stuff,” Botelho said.
One problem, he said, was that state agencies, rather than the department, maintain “scorecards” used to grade contractors’ bids, so when the auditor asked for the scorecards, it took extra time to run them down.
Botelho said the department is now retaining such records in one place and has made other organizational changes to better respond to requests from the auditor.
In an audit in August, Foley harshly criticized the Materiel Division of DAS, the entity that awards state contracts, for sloppy record-keeping and failing to properly monitor contract compliance.
In one instance, the auditor said, scorecards were inaccurately totaled, resulting in the wrong company scoring highest for a $13.8 million contract for copy machines.
The audit also found one $8.9 million contract for oiling asphalt roads that was awarded even though the state hadn’t received the required three bids, instead receiving only two.
Foley also criticized DAS for failing to monitor if office supplies had been purchased at a contract’s agreed price and for failing to notice that a paper-shredding company had stopped paying the state its share of the proceeds of recycling that paper.
Botelho said there had been a communications problem with the recycling company that has since been resolved.
Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery, who chairs the Government Committee, said that the Legislature may need to look again at a bill requiring state agencies to remit information to the auditor within a few days, perhaps 10 days. A similar bill died without advancing this year.
Foley said he’d like to be on equal footing with the public, which must be notified within four days when they make an information request. He also said legislation may be needed to rein in agencies from amending contracts, thus increasing their cost, without putting them out for new bids.
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