RICHMOND -- With a goal of restoring the public's trust, the West Contra Costa school district's board of trustees authorized a comprehensive forensic audit of the district's $1.6 billion bond program.
The board voted 4-1 to have independent forensic auditors Vicenti, Lloyd & Stutzman conduct the high-level, detailed accounting of the school bond construction program to root out potential fraud, waste and abuse. The audit also will verify that proper procedures are in place to prevent financial mismanagement in the future.
The vote was a victory for bond watchdogs who had long been asking for improved transparency and accountability in the district. They came to the meeting by the dozens to urge the board to approve a full independent forensic accounting of the bond program so that any lingering doubts about it might be put to rest.
"I understand that you are addressing the cloud over the district, and it is certainly my intention to do everything to get that cloud out from over us," said board trustee Madeline Kronenberg, who supported the full audit. "We have to do that full deep dive to rebuild the confidence that we once had and that our children deserve."
A whistleblower subcommittee, formed after a former analyst made allegations of financial mismanagement in the bond program, recommended that the board approve the in-depth forensic audit. A dueling recommendation by district staff for a watered-down version of an audit was not approved by the trustees.
The estimated cost of the forensic audit is $1 million and would be paid from bond program money.
Board President Randy Enos cast the lone vote against a comprehensive audit, acknowledging that he was "the last Indian on the prairie, and it wasn't the safest position."
"We're not doing politics here," he said. "What we're doing here is making real decisions about what's going to happen to your grandchildren or your child or your cousin. ...I cannot vote for this. I won't vote for this," he said.
He said he agreed with Don Gosney, a resident who opposed the full audit.
"To spend $1 million dollars just on this phase of your witch hunt, I never voted for that," Gosney said. "And doing this all under the guise of transparency and accountability? What's the endgame of this?"
Trustee Val Cuevas, who also serves on the subcommittee, said she felt a full audit was the only way she could in good conscience go back to taxpayers to approve future bond measures and thus finish the job of building schools for needy kids throughout the district. After the vote, members of the public who supported the full review broke into applause and cheers. "To have the target of the investigation recommending a reduction in scope is inadmissible and indefensible," and such "last-minute interventions by background players at the district" shows that "nothing has changed," said Tom Panas, a member of the district's Citizens' Bond Oversight Committee.
While critics of the forensic audit bristled at cost, others argued that it's minuscule compared with the overall bond program budget. At an emergency Clay subcommittee meeting earlier Wednesday, community members cried foul. Elliot Haspel of the group Education Matters said it smelled like a "cover-up" and "a fast one pulled by staff." Resident Ben Steinberg demanded to know why associate superintendent Lisa LeBlanc, who is the district's representative on the subcommittee, "hijacked" the audit recommendation, substituting it with her own.
LeBlanc defended her recommendation, saying the forensic auditors' work would be "duplicative" of the district's annual performance auditors' work and wasteful of the limited funds remaining in the $1.6 billion bond program -- only about $200 million of which is left today. Her recommendation also states that the audit would require "the significant heavy workload of staff," according to board documents.
Trustee Liz Block pointed out that annual performance audits, which are conducted to ensure that bond programs comply with Proposition 39, are different from those of forensic auditors, who specialize in uncovering waste, fraud, abuse and financial irregularities.
Contact Joyce Tsai at 925-945-4764. Follow her at Twitter.com/joycetsainews.