Why Won't City Hall Count Its Money? Because Then Someone Would Be Accountable.
The cops still aren't counting the cash drawer. Unbelievable. A decade after Dallas Police got caught running a massive scam out of their cash accounts, deliberately framing innocent people on fake drug charges in order to manipulate payments to fake informants, the Dallas city auditor has reported that the narcotics division never implemented the accounting reforms needed to guard against a recurrence.
In spite of an agreement to fix it after previous bad audits, the narcs still have a broken cash system that "permits officers to complete transactions from beginning to end without proper audit trails, transparency and accountability," City Auditor Craig D. Kinton said in a new audit sent to the City Council last Friday.
Wait. Wait. That's only part of it. Kinton's audit found that City Hall routinely ignores critical findings in audits of all its departments. It agrees to adopt reforms and then does nothing but says it did.
Kinton looked at 58 reforms called for in city audits between 2009 and 2011. City staff told him it had adopted 53 of the reforms. Kinton found they had put in place only 18 of the reforms.
For anybody who has followed City Hall over time, some of these failures might seem to defy logic. For example, the city employees who run Fair Park still can't count the money they're supposed to collect under contract with various vendors and institutions. Oh, and in some cases they forget to even have a contract. Darn it: had a contract, it lapsed, got busy, just forgot to get a new one, but the vendor or institution is still out there selling tickets, so City Hall just sort of hopes they'll drop by with some money once in a while. In other words, City hall is dependent on the kindness of vendors. Wow. Interesting concept.
Could this stuff happen anywhere? Well, sure. Once. But the point about Fair Park, for example, is that an inability to count the money is a tradition that stretches back for decades. The question would be this: About the 10th time somebody points out to you don't have a way to count the money, why on earth would you not hurry up and find a way to count the money??
Go back to the narcotics cops thing. The fake drugs scandal in 2001-2002 should have been the very worst kind of searing trauma any heads-up police department in America could endure. Sworn Dallas peace officers, people wearing the badge, put utterly innocent victims in prison for years on trumped up drug charges. They paid $210,000 to one phony informant alone for phony evidence.
Only one cop was ever convicted, and we never did get a good picture of where all that money went. But c'mon. This was a police nightmare. A special commission afterward called for all kinds of reforms. It wasn't just Kinton. People all over the country were talking about it.
So a decade later how can it even be possible that the narcs still have their hands in the cash drawer and nobody's counting? How can it be that Fair Park still can't count its money or enforce its contracts?
Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm told The Dallas Morning News that she just doesn't agree with a lot of the reforms called for by the auditor and sometimes thinks it would cost too much to put them in place. "Sometimes it's too much money for protecting against too little risk."
Too little risk? The fake drugs scandal happening again? That's too little risk? It happened once, didn't it? The controls everybody said we needed to make sure it never happens again still are not in place. So why couldn't it happen again? How is that "too little risk?"
And wait a minute. If you think the reforms are too expensive and you don't want to do them, why don't you say they're too expensive and you're not going to do them? But that's not at all what this new study found.
Kinton asked city staff if they had done the reforms. Of 58 he studied, staff said sure, they had done all but five of the 58. But when Kinton looked, he found the number of reforms not carried out was not five. It was 40.
So what's the explanation for that? We thought it would cost too much; it was too expensive for too little risk; so we set our pants on fire and lied about it?
Look, the answer here is that this consistent failure over time to implement transparent accounting does not actually defy logic. It's a question of whose logic you're talking about. Yes, city staff is dependent on the kindness of vendors. But that coin has another side. Those vendors also are dependent on the kindness of city staff.
The accounting text books will tell you there are two major accounting methods in the world of finance -- cash basis and accrual. Wrong. Dallas City Hall operates on a third accounting method -- nudge-nudge, wink-wink.
Loose accounting persists at City Hall because loose accounting works in the interest of city management and certain privileged interests. Loose accounting has everything to do with the way City Hall survives, works it will and thumbs its nose at the elected officials whom city staff deride behind their hands as "the summer help." But it also has to do with the way some lucky people get what they want from City Hall.
You could go in there tomorrow, put the whole thing on some corporate equivalent of Quicken, put it on-line and let everybody in the world watch every nickel come in and go out. But if you did that, city staff would lose every inch of its wriggle room and so would the people outside who want those nickels for their signature bridges and other baubles.
It's all symptomatic of this buck-stops-nowhere city manager system we're stuck with in Dallas. It actually works like a damn McDonald's if you're a wired-up developer, an old major-bucks family or a big company that wants a free golf course for its executives. Push the right button and out it pops -- one golf course, coming up. Fries with that? Horse park?
A fired city auditor once told me if you put cash in a drawer and then make sure everybody knows you are never going to count that drawer, you must assume the money is already stolen. Gone. Tragically no longer with us.
I don't know. I don't know if I believe this is about clerks with Swiss bank accounts. It's about keeping nudge-nudge, wink-wink alive, the old ways. The money in those uncounted drawers is just available when somebody needs it, and that somebody is seldom you or me. We just put the money in. I don't really know whose kindness you and I are dependent on. Our dogs maybe?
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.