We’re usually the last to let government off the hook when it fails taxpayers or falls short of its responsibilities, but recent reports of the Minnesota Department of Human services not filling out paperwork on legitimate and approved spending appear to be bureaucratic malaise more than intentional fraud.
The department violated 50 to 150 rules and laws in allocating about $52 million of its $18 billion in spending, according to reports by news organizations.
Most of the violations involved not filling out proper paperwork or missing a deadline. There were no charges of misspent funds or fraud.
In fact, in some cases, DHS workers bypassed paperwork to get things done, like keeping homeless shelters open while funds were on the way, but not approved. In other cases, work was started on contracts before all the i’s were dotted and t’s crossed.
And while the Senate GOP Finance Committee led by Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, has jumped on the case to hold hearings to investigate every such paperwork violation of every state agency, it was the Legislature itself that caused one violation delay because it had not yet approved funds, according to a report in the Pioneer Press.
DHS approved $3.5 million to homeless shelters even though the Legislature had not yet approved the funding as it was missing its own deadlines on May 25. Had DHS workers followed the letter of the law, homeless shelters would have closed, according to a report in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
The total violations also appear unclear as state laws allow DHS to go back on uncompleted contracts and approve them after the fact as long as they go to the intended use. In fact, more than half of the 200 violation reports involved employees spending before prior approval, but it’s unclear if the law was actually violated because employees filled out papers to later justify the normal expenses.
And no money is actually paid out until contracts are complete. Work simply began before the money came.
No one is saying the DHS shouldn’t vastly improve its procedures and follow its own paperwork rules. And with about 190 paper violation reports last year, it appears the problem is getting worse.
Deputy Legislative Auditor Christopher Buse said DHS should have notified the auditor about missteps that he said seemed “widespread.” Rightly so. It’s also important to note all the violations in this case were self-reported by DHS employees.
So it’s a bit of overreach to hold partisan legislative hearings for days and days to investigate an agency that didn’t follow paperwork procedures for 0.03% of its budget.
A more thorough and less partisan review by the legislative auditor’s office seems more appropriate.