To audit or not to audit? That’s the question.
We should get the answer to that question Thursday, when the Columbus City Council meets to consider a recommendation from Mayor Keith Gaskin to hire a forensic auditor to examine the city’s finances for missing funds connected to the Milton Rawle scandal.
State Auditor Shad White’s office began investigating Rawle in 2019 after a tip from a whistleblower and found numerous unauthorized transactions falsely labeled under “payroll” or “reimbursement.” Rawle was arrested in August 2020 for embezzling $288,000 in city funds and after pleading guilty and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
White said at a June Columbus Rotary speaking engagement that the $288,000 may have been just the tip of the iceberg, given that the city’s deficits for Fiscal Years 2017 and 2018 each exceeded $800,000. White said it wasn’t “a bad idea” for the city to hire a forensic audit if city leaders thought the cost would justify the results.
There’s the rub. First of all, there is no guarantee that a forensic auditor could find money the state auditor’s office couldn’t find during its investigation. If they do, how much? Would any such money be the result of criminal wrongdoing or simply poor accounting? Would it offset the cost of the forensic auditor? Also, is the recovery of any such money realistic?
The council’s decision will likely be influenced by the cost of the forensic audit. Mayor Keith Gaskin said he’s discussed fees with two forensic auditing firms and will reveal that information as part of the discussion.
Whether or not the council should proceed with a forensic audit relies heavily on what it hopes to achieve.
If the primary purpose of the audit is to continue the pursuit of criminal conduct on Rawle’s part to discover purloined funds that will never be recovered, we question the value of the audit. There’s no use crying over spilled milk, as the saying goes. And while there have been many calls from the public over hunting down undiscovered criminal fiscal activity, we believe any such action driven by the desire for a reckoning will only divide the city.
If, on the other hand, the purpose of the audit is to help city officials have a better grasp of city finances or expose some structural flaw in the way the city conducts its business, the audit may be justified, even if it does not recover any funds. It is crucial for any organization to have a clear picture of its finances.
It’s not so much about a “clean slate” for the new administration as it is about making sure the city’s business is conducted efficiently.
There has been healthy debate on this issue thus far, and we hope that constructive dialogue continues among councilmen tomorrow.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.