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Jeffco commissioners ax internal audit department

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By AJ Vicens

The Jefferson County commissioners eliminated the county’s internal audit department on Feb. 17, citing the need “to reduce administrative overhead costs” and saying the department’s functions were duplicative.

But the now-former internal auditor said that’s not the reason at all.

Susan Johnson, who lost her job along with her assistant, says it’s all about accountability.

Johnson, who had worked for the county since 2005 with an ending annual salary of $96,000, lost her job when the commissioners eliminated her department on a 2-1 vote, a move that will save $215,000 annually. Commissioners Kathy Hartman and Faye Griffin voted to eliminate the department; Commissioner Kevin McCasky voted to keep it.

Johnson’s department was charged with auditing financial transactions and adherence to policies by elected officials, department heads and staff. But Hartman and Griffin believe that work is being handled adequately by external auditors, federal auditors and the county’s audit committee.

Johnson said she was shocked by the elimination of her department.

“I’m as baffled as you are,” Johnson said Feb. 18. “… As far as a logical explanation, I can’t give you that.”

“Elected officials, and I’ve been told by more than a couple of them there, they are not subject to the same rules as other management or non-elected officials,” Johnson said. Johnson wouldn’t say which elected officials she was referring to.

“She’s obviously entitled to her opinion,” McCasky said. “But I unequivocally disagree with her.”

Hartman also defended the decision to eliminate the department.

“At nearly a quarter of a million dollars a year for the department, it seemed duplicative,” Hartman said. The move will save the county about $215,000 annually. “We have external auditors, federal auditors and an audit committee that can access any areas they want. The (internal audit department) was an idea of a previous board, and I think Commissioner Griffin and I thought it was not a good use of taxpayer resources.”

Hartman said the county undergoes thorough financial auditing by an external firm, and any internal policy and procedural auditing is “done by staff managers, and auditing policies and procedures was not the responsibility of the internal auditor anyway.”

Johnson said that having managers audit themselves and their staff doesn’t work.

“Nobody looks at their own,” Johnson said.

Johnson said part of her role was ensuring that policies and procedures were followed, and that she wasn’t there to look at financial problems alone.

“You’re not only looking for fraud …,” Johnson said. “A culture is extremely difficult to change, and we never had that support. That was the battle of the whole four years. We never had that support.”

Hartman dismissed that contention.

“Of course we want accountability,” Hartman said.

The commissioners plan to meet with the audit committee — made up of outside auditors, elected officials and county staff — to determine how the essential functions of the eliminated department will be handled going forward.

McCasky, the lone vote to preserve Johnson’s department, said he supported her work.

“As one of the original two votes to create the (internal) audit operation and hire her, I felt it was a worthy endeavor,” McCasky said. “This type of oversight was needed.”

But Hartman said Johnson’s department won’t be missed.

“I think if you talk to some of the other elected officials, you will hear that they are not sorry to see that department eliminated,” Hartman said. “They spent a lot of time and money responding to requests they thought were clearly duplicative.”

Hartman said that Griffin, who couldn’t be reached for comment, initiated the resolution to eliminate the department.

“I took a look at it, took a look at the cost of the department and a look at what I’ve heard from other elected officials about their appreciation of the internal audit department,” Hartman said. “I am aware auditors are never popular. But this particular department was particularly not appreciated in my experience with auditors.”

Johnson said Griffin was upset at being cited last fall for a policy violation of failing to itemize a receipt submitted for reimbursement.

Casey Tighe, chair of the county’s external audit committee and an auditor by trade, said Johnson and the audit committee were doing good work and improving the county’s auditing standards.

“Whatever the county decides to do with the internal auditing function, I hope they organize it in a way that is compliant with government auditing standards,” Tighe said.

Griffin replaced Jim Congrove as commissioner in January. Johnson served as Congrove’s campaign treasurer when he ran for the commission in 2004.

Johnson, who was given a severance package of four months pay, isn’t happy about leaving the county.

“It’s still devastating,” Johnson said. “You work so hard to get somewhere, just to have two people — I believe three, but technically two — erase it.”

Contact AJ Vicens at aj@evergreenco.com, and check www.columbinecourier.com for updates and breaking news.