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Maryland legislators take aim at growing number of repeat offenders in audits

Sen Clarence Lam, D-Baltimore and Howard counties, is one of the lawmakers who questions the growing number of repeat violators in state audits. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Lawmakers, irritated with a growing number of unsatisfactory audits of state agencies, said legislation may be needed to force compliance.

Members of the Joint Audit and Evaluation Committee made the threat as they pressed Budget Secretary David Brinkley and others Tuesday for answers.

“We’re not just here to listen to audits and move on to the next audit,” said Del Carol Krimm, D-Frederick and co-chair of the Joint Audit and Evaluation Committee.

Krimm and Sen. Clarence Lam, D-Baltimore and Howard and co-chair of the committee, expressed concerns about the growing number of repeat findings by the Office of Legislative Audits.

In the last year there have been roughly 150 repeat findings across agencies reviewed by auditors, according to Lam.

In 2006, the legislature created an office within the state Department of Budget and Management. That agency was tasked with overseeing state departments required to correct audit findings.

At the time the law was passed, about 45% of audits had repeat findings still waiting for corrections. Within seven years, that number dropped to 21%.

Brinkley said older technology and not a lack of staffing are responsible for delayed corrections of audit findings.

“When we have these legacy systems, the numbers do tick back up,” he said.

Lam said a review by state auditors found that almost 30% of audits on the current year have uncorrected issues identified in previous reports.

Joan Peacock, who leads the three-person team within the budget department, said staffing issues as well as employee turnover and aging systems contribute to delays in fixing problems.

But Peacock acknowledged her agency does not track what prevents an agency from taking a specific corrective action.

Additionally, the role of Peacock’s team is limited.

“Ultimately, however, it is up to each agency to implement corrective actions and to continue to enforce those actions to ensure they do not have any repeat findings,” said Peacock. “There’s no amount of monitoring that can be effective if agency management does not take action. If an agency does not accept our suggestions, our recommendations, or if they change procedures they put in place after they’ve been implemented, those could result in seeing repeat findings occur.”

Both Krimm and Lam focused on concerns about a lack of staffing, both in state agencies as well as Peacock’s group. Legislation creating the agency called for 10 people.

Peacock said her group, which Brinkley called “a little powerhouse,” has a fourth open position but has never had 10 employees.

“That may be something we need to look at,” said Lam, who also questioned Brinkley on whether departments are told not to hire staff.

“We also hear that sometimes agencies and departments are given instructions not to fill certain positions and keep a certain number of positions open,” said Lam.

Brinkley told the committee that other than during hiring freezes, such as the one imposed by Gov. Larry Hogan last summer as the pandemic threatened agency budgets, there is no such mandate. But the budget secretary said many agencies can repurpose open positions rather than request new ones.

“We haven’t let warm bodies go,” said Brinkley.

Hiring additional employees isn’t the only answer, Brinkley added.

“A lot of people can get a lot of work done with technology now,” he said. “We have technology now where we can share information and communicate and get things done now that we didn’t have in 2006.”

Improvements are still needed in some departments that are dealing with older systems that haven’t been upgraded for decades, the budget secretary said.

“Everything is shifting, and it is shifting quite quickly,” said Brinkley. “Our issue is can our personnel keep up with some of those types of changes. I’m not trying to criticize anything but … positions might not be the solution … competency certainly can be the answer.”