A highly critical audit of the Johnson County elections office paints a picture of lax accounting and overspending on the part of former Election Commissioner Brian Newby.
The audit, presented to the Johnson County Commission on Thursday, identified about $36,000 in costs it considered questionable, including GoPro and Garmin camera equipment, Google Glass smart glasses, and a selfie stick.
Auditors also said the office used improper or questionable procedures for purchasing and procurement, and that some of Newby’s travel claims shouldn’t have been allowed. The commission will ask Newby to return $5,478 of the travel expenses.
Newby, who left the county election office in November to become executive director of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, responded that the audit was misleading and done for political purposes.
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“You have to ask yourself why they’re doing their very first transitional audit ever done for an agency that doesn’t report to them,” he said. “Clearly it’s politically motivated.”
Newby noted that the audit was taken after his departure and said an earlier audit focusing on ways to better serve voters would have been more helpful. The county conducts internal audits of its departments from time to time, but has done no audits focusing solely on the election office since at least 2002.
The election commissioner is appointed by the Kansas Secretary of State but its budget is paid from county funds.
Transitional audits are not uncommon but they are not always done when a department head leaves, a county official said. Before the Newby audit, the most recent one was 2011. In this case there were concerns before Newby left office, county officials said.
The audit, conducted by County Auditor Ken Kleffner, mostly addressed administrative and spending issues and did not suggest any irregularities in the use of voting equipment. The auditor’s office did take inventory of voting equipment and found nothing out of order. A limited look at voter registration lists found only 15 questionable records out of 377,522. All were successfully resolved, according to the audit.
The audit studied the time period from Jan. 1, 2010, through July of last year.
Some parts of the audit cited weak record keeping and oversight of purchasing, inventory and cash collections, but others questioned whether the items themselves were necessary for carrying out election duties.
The camera items, selfie stick, smart glasses and an Amazon Fire Phone were singled out in the audit as not serving a bonafide purpose in elections. The audit quoted Newby as saying the technology was bought to determine its impact on the election process, but said auditors could not find any documentation of that impact assessment.
Inventory of the office’s contents brought about more questions, Kleffner said. The 60-page report said the elections office spent about $580 per month on books and subscriptions, some with multiple copies. There were more than 900 books at the office’s “Center of Excellence” library, the audit said.
The office’s inventory also included technological equipment the auditor’s office labeled as “excessive,” including 16 laptops, 14 tablets, four GPS navigators, an Apple iWatch, an Amazon Echo and a baby monitor. These items did not have documentation, according to the report.
Kleffner portrayed the election department as an office in disarray during his presentation of the audit to county commissioners. He described opening a cabinet to start the inventory: “The moment the cabinet opened up some items fell out. Some Macbook Pros were in their original packaging,” he said.
Of particular concern was the purchasing method, he said. The office did not follow county guidelines and allowed card information to be stored at Amazon, for example, which made it almost impossible to document who actually authorized the purchase.
Auditors also faulted Newby for expenses for hosting the 2015 Midwest Election Officials Conference. The county, through the elections office, paid for audio visual and staging equipment as well as supplies for that conference that should have come from the conference site paid with registration fees, the report said.
The audit also questioned the 2011 lease-purchase arrangement for the election commission to have a Chevrolet Traverse, saying the county paid about $5,800 more than it would have if it had taken a prior low bid to buy. And auditors doubted the value of a management consultant for a team-building workshop held in February 2015. The half-day workshop was conducted by a former co-worker of Newby’s and cost $3,500.
The travel expenses Newby will be asked to repay are for what the audit termed unjustified flight and hotel upgrades; per diem overpayments; unallowable transportation expenses, and travel expenses that had no documentation. The report said Newby took 45 of the office’s 86 trips during the January 2010 through August 2015 time period, and that 36 of his trips contained improper payments. For example, the audit said Newby did not repay the county when his travel expenses came in lower than expected, and that he improperly used a car service to get to the airport when airport trips should have been covered by his car allowance of $300 per month.
The audit also took issue with how office purchase cards were used on travel, saying Newby circumvented a necessary county manager’s review by charging travel expenses to an assistant election commissioner’s card and reviewing them himself. The assistant commissioner has since left the election office for a job elsewhere.
The report also listed a number of what it considered weaknesses in office administration. Officials did not keep good track of who had codes or cards for temporary access to the election office, and it overbilled four jurisdictions by more than $5,400 in two special elections last year, the report said.
Newby said the audit left out important points and that he did nothing improper.
In a blog post at http://electiondiary-briandnewby.blogspot.com/, Newby defended his stewardship of taxpayer money.
“The audit appears to have focused on book purchases, attendance at out-of-state conferences, and office equipment purchases,” Newby wrote. “These purchases resulted in the taxpayers of Johnson County saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in efficiencies and cost saving measures.”
In the post, he said the car allowance was only for in-county travel, not trips to the airport.
“I have a letter that explains exactly how the car (allowance) applies to me and I followed that completely as I did with everything else,” he said in an interview.
The staging and audio visual equipment was bought because the office was short of equipment it would need to train workers for the upcoming presidential election, he said. The office uses the Traverse to transport equipment to the training, which takes place away from the election office, he said.
Before the SUV was obtained, election officials used surplus county vans that frequently broke down, Newby said. But because there wasn’t money in the county budget at the time to buy the vehicle outright, the office went to lease-purchase. “We followed all the processes,” he said.
Newby said his purchasing has been judicious to the point that he did not need his yearly $25,000 allotment from the county last year because he had not used it all up previously.
The management consultant was hired to help the office deal with turnover from retirements, he said. “They made it sound like we were best friends but regardless, he was a qualified expert. I hadn’t talked to him in years,” Newby said.
And many of the items left at the office were not necessarily bought with county money, he said.
“When I left, I left a lot of personal things there,” he said. “The baby monitor was a personal thing. They didn’t pay for the baby monitor. I left it in my office but they made it appear it was an expenditure the county paid for.”
Newby cited his record of achievement serving the voters and the fact that he’s been appointed by both Democratic and Republican secretaries of state.
“Everything I did was for the voters. I think they’ve misrepresented so many things,” he said.
Newby said the audit may be an attempt by the commission to gain control over an office that is under the purview of the secretary of state.
“That’s been the nut of this whole thing,” Newby said. “They have been frustrated that the county manager didn’t have control over our office and they thought they should. There’s a separation in the four largest counties between the board of county commissioners and the election commission appointed by the secretary of state’s office for just this very reason,” he said.
“Otherwise you have your county manager or board of county commissioners running elections, which is something you want to avoid,” Newby said.
Commission Chairman Ed Eilert said that although the election commissioner is state appointed, the county pays the bills.
“It’s important to understand that the funds for the entire election office are local taxpayers’ dollars,” Eilert said. “There are no dollars from the state.”
Other commissioners vowed to follow up on the audit. Commissioner Steve Klika offered an apology to Ron Metsker, Newby’s replacement. “I’m sorry you have to deal with this,” he said.
Comments from Metsker were included in the audit itself. He pledged to work with the auditor’s office on revamping policies to improve the office’s record keeping and oversight.
Roxie Hammill: firstname.lastname@example.org