Auditor seeking expanded powers
Wants authority to track spending of any public funds
State Auditor Suzanne M. Bump yesterday called for new legislation that would broaden her authority to investigate the private organizations that provide an increasing share of the state’s public services with taxpayer money.
Bump said a pattern of excessive salaries, pension abuse, and other improprieties at the special education collaboratives that serve children with disabilities shows that the state’s fiscal watchdogs need more authority to monitor the spending of taxpayer money.
The legislation, which Bump referred to as the “follow-the-money-bill,’’ would authorize her to audit the use of state funds by any organization, whether it is a government agency, a nonprofit group, a for-profit vendor, or a private subcontractor.
“It would allow me to go wherever the public money is,’’ Bump said at a news conference at which she also introduced a series of recommendations to increase oversight of the state’s 30 educational collaboratives.
Bump said the need for the bill, initially proposed by her predecessor, Joseph DeNucci, was underscored by her frustrations in trying to audit spending at two of the collaboratives. In both cases, officials at related nonprofit groups refused to relinquish records because their organizations are not public agencies.
The legislation sought by Bump would extend her reach far beyond the handful of nonprofits that work with education collaboratives. Bump said she is especially concerned about $2.3 billion in state funds awarded annually to private vendors to provide a broad array of human services, including treatment for adults with disabilities.
Bump said that a significant, but undetermined, portion of that money is awarded to subcontractors who have no obligation to cooperate with her efforts to monitor their use of state funds.
“We should have the legal authority to look at how that money is spent,’’ she said.
Bump said the roadblocks to her investigations of education collaboratives were put up during audits of the Middleborough-based READS Collaborative, and the Billerica-based Merrimack Special Education Collaborative.
At the READS Collaborative, Bump found that the former executive director avoided limits on his state teacher’s pension by listing 100 percent of his salary at a related nonprofit organization, even though he also served as the executive director of the collaborative.
At the Merrimack collaborative, Bump attempted to trace several transactions between the collaborative and a related nonprofit organization - the Chelmsford-based Merrimack Education Center - and was stymied when the nonprofit refused to turn over documents.
Bump found that more than $30 million of taxpayer money may have been misspent at the Merrimack collaborative, which purchases a variety of services from the nonprofit, including classroom space, transportation and administrative assistance.
State Inspector General Gregory W. Sullivan, who ignited the furor about educational collaboratives with an earlier investigation of the Merrimack agency, said the legislation sought by Bump would be “the single most important reform’’ to arise from the controversy.
As it is written, the legislation does not apply to Sullivan’s office. But Bump said she would consider supporting new language that would give the inspector similar authority to investigate the use of state money by private organizations providing public services.
During his inquiry, Sullivan said, he also encountered officials at the nonprofit Merrimack Education Center who refused to disclose records or be interviewed because the center is a private group.
“That’s how MEC was able to throw up that screen,’’ he said.
At her news conference, Bump called for a variety of additional measures to increase the monitoring of spending by the collaboratives, which spend about $300 million a year to serve 8,500 students. The recommendations include:
■ Increased oversight by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
■ A cap on the surpluses that collaboratives can accumulate.
■ A change in the composition of local collaborative boards of directors to include financial experts.
■ A clearer definition of the services a collaborative may provide, including whether they may serve adults as well as children.
Stephen J. Theall, the executive director of the Massachusetts Organization of Educational Collaboratives, which represents 27 of the agencies, said he welcomed Bump’s recommendations. “They seem to be reasonable things we could support,’’ he said.
Mitchell D. Chester, the state education commissioner, said the recommendations will be reviewed at a meeting of a special agency committee on education collaboratives scheduled for later this month.
“We appreciate Auditor Bump’s efforts and know that she takes this matter as seriously as we do,’’ Chester said.
Michael Rezendes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.