Since Keith Gaskin was sworn in as mayor on July 1, he said several community members have offered him some version of, “if there’s anything I can ever help you do, let me know.”
There’s definitely something they can do, Gaskin said, and now he’s letting them know.
On Tuesday, representatives with two firms — Legier and Company Forensic CPAs and Business Consultants of New Orleans, Louisiana, and GranthamPoole Certified Public Accountants of Jackson — will pitch their services to the city council for a forensic audit of city finances.
The cost for the audit, Gaskin said, could sprawl into “the six figures.” To defray that, he wants the city to set up a special fund for private citizens to donate to the effort.
Gaskin first voiced support for a forensic audit during his election campaign and announced in August he planned to interview firms with that expertise and ask the city council to hire one.
The move comes after years of deficit spending in the city budget and former Chief Financial Officer Milton Rawle pleading guilty to embezzling nearly $290,000 in city funds between December 2016 and December 2018. Rawle was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Gaskin said the firms will present to the council Tuesday, and he will ask for a vote on whether to hire one of them on Oct. 19.
Some council members, chiefly Ward 6’s Jacqueline DiCicco, have publicly supported a forensic audit. Others, including Ward 2’s Joseph Mickens and Ward 5’s Stephen Jones, previously told The Dispatch their support hinges on how much the forensic audit will cost the city.
Even if the city eats the whole cost, Gaskin said, representatives with Legier and GranthamPoole told him forensic audits typically yield more money for cities over time than the audits cost to conduct.
Plus, Gaskin said he believes the overwhelming majority of the public wants to see this done.
“I’m not trying to sell the council,” Gaskin said. “I think the council needs to listen to their constituents. There’s a definite outcry in the community for this. In my opinion if we don’t do this, we will never get credit with our constituency. The majority of the people in Columbus, I believe, would like to see this happen.
“Everywhere I go, everywhere I speak, people from all walks of life ask me, ‘Where are we on the forensic audit? When do you think we’ll get started?’” he added.
Asking for private donations to fund the audit would essentially be an “opt-in tax,” said Logan Reeves, media relations director for State Auditor Shad White’s office. Cities creating such private avenues to fund public functions is “not common at all” but generally allowable.
“The (council) is allowed to vote to accept donations from the public for a specific purpose,” Reeves said. “The (council) would also have to vote (in a separate motion) to expend those funds.”
What the audit would entail
Gaskin said a forensic audit would be “a whole different animal” than its annual audit — which looks more broadly at the city’s finances and accounting practices.
The forensic audit looks much deeper, closely reviewing banking documents and interviewing employees, contractors, third-party organizations, “anybody and everybody involved in the city’s finances,” Gaskin said.
“It’s a big deal,” he said. “This will be time consuming.”
Gaskin said the forensic audit would likely look at the past seven years, and the city would contract with an outside attorney, rather than City Attorney Jeff Turnage, regarding the audit. Once it is complete, Gaskin said a report of the audit’s findings would be made public.
A major factor driving the need for a forensic audit, he added, is cleaning up the city’s finances and getting a clear picture of its fiscal health. Even the broader annual audits have found the city’s accounting practices wanting, according to reports filed with the State Auditor’s Office.
“We know from past reports that the city did not have a lot of good internal controls or best practices in place,” Gaskin said. “… This city has got to get to a point … where we have confidence from the community that we’re working from a clean budget, that people feel confident we have all the procedures in place to be the best stewards possible.”
Gaskin expects the audit will find instances of accidental misappropriation the city can rectify with better procedures. It may also find more criminal activity.
“Both (firms) from what they have talked to us about and what they’ve learned, it has given me the impression that there was more embezzled than what was recovered,” he said.
Either firm will keep the city abreast of the running cost total of the audit, Gaskin said, meaning the city could guide or amend the scope as it went and there would be “no surprise bill at the end.”
“I would be very comfortable with either one of these firms doing the job,” he said. “They have been very professional and they are both very interested in doing the work.”
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.