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September 25, 2007

A mess at MAS?: A Metro audit and complaints by a former employee point to troubling times at Animal Services

Rory Coriell thought he was doing the best thing when he offered his employer a heads-up on the poor accounting practices and mismanagement of funds he said he was seeing. It was a new job, he thought, and he’d better report everything up the chain — better to keep the blame on the other side of the fence when it inevitably comes around. But within a month of informing his superiors at Louisville Metro Animal Services that the money and transactions he was entering into the agency’s computer system were not matching up, Coriell was terminated. The reason he was given: some mixture of “doesn’t get along well with others” and incomplete probationary period. All new MAS workers undergo a three-month test. The day before his firing, his was doubled. Coriell believes he was fired because he spoke up about foul accounting at MAS. He saw a pattern, and once he opened his mouth, his superiors stopped giving him that work to do. And while an agency official denied all this, a report released Aug. 31 by the Metro Office of Internal Audit seems to support some of his claims. It found that the agency’s management, both of revenue and general operations, is inadequate at the moment. There is not always proper accounting of the money coming in, animal records are sometimes incomplete and inconsistent data entry practices are making it worse. As a clerk at Louisville Metro Animal Services, Coriell’s basic job was to take money from the public. He was the “face” of the agency, sitting at the front desk and accepting cash, checks and credit cards for licenses, citations, animals being released back into an owner’s custody — things MAS does every day. One basic tenet of the job was to grapple with the weeping and the enraged, and since the passage of the new dog ordinance, there has been a swell in both, as confusion about new fees and a lack of organization at MAS — as stated in the audit report — have entwined into a general confusion and malaise. Soon after starting, a superior asked Coriell to enter revenue and licensing transactions from the SPOT (Stop Pet Overpopulation Today) program into the agency’s computer system. SPOT is the 55-foot mobile clinic that offers preventive care for low-income pet owners. There were two things working against Coriell at MAS: As a senior accounting student at Bellarmine University and a veteran of the business world with years of experience both in the purchasing and accounting departments of a major Louisville enterprise, he was sensitive to keeping the books straight. As a brand-new employee who needed a low-stress job to get him through the last year of school, he was sensitive to keeping that job. Still under the new-hire probationary period on July 21, Coriell sent a memo to his bosses — SPOT coordinator Tami Harbolt-Bosco, business manager Kim Marburger and director Dr. Gilles Meloche — pointing out discrepancies in the money arriving from the roving SPOT program. “We have experienced a real problem with missing, incomplete and incorrect information,” Coriell wrote. “… We need cash and check totals, full rabies info, and most importantly, which services we are charging for. Simply seeking a dollar figure and making assumptions as to what it was collected for is no way to conduct any kind of business.” In an interview last week, Coriell offered a detailed list of what he observed, most notably with SPOT. Employees were falsifying journal entries, he said, classifying cash overages as “charitable contributions” rather than reporting that money to feed back into Metro coffers. He said that customers in the field were not being offered receipts — a violation of Metro finance department policy. All SPOT intake was classified the same, whether it was cash, check or charge, and MAS was not keeping customer deposits intact — also mentioned in the audit report. He was not asked to input the SPOT data after his July 21 memo. To his eventual detriment, Coriell continued to plead with others above him in the chain of command for better accounting practices. His silver bullet, it appears, was a lengthy e-mail sent directly to Meloche, early in the afternoon of Aug. 16. In it, he asked the director for a meeting to discuss the accounting issues. The staff knew MAS was being audited, and he had refused to process any more SPOT transactions, fearing his reputation may be on the line. In the closing paragraph, Coriell wrote, “I am bound to work within the ethical standards of my profession. I simply owe it to you, as my employer, to address these matters.” Privately, Coriell was waiting for MAS to bring the hammer down on a low-status newbie for an entire system of jacked up accounting. He was trying hard to get out of the way. Meloche didn’t give him a meeting. Rather, he fired Coriell before he left that day. The two never discussed the accounting irregularities he’d been complaining about. A month later, Coriell e-mailed Lynne Fleming, in Metro’s human resources department. He recounted the story, shared e-mails, made a case for why he believed he was wrongfully terminated — basically what you’d do if you were trying to get your job back with the city. That has yet to happen. This is much ado about little, according to Jackie Gulbe, the MAS spokeswoman. In an interview Tuesday, Gulbe said the so-called accounting irregularities amount to a few dollars here and there, not enough to have a measurable effect. The audit report does not offer dollar amounts. More to the point, she said the transition to a new computer system — MAS switched from basically pad-and-paper to a system called Chameleon in March 2005 — has been a beast. As for the problems with SPOT, Gulbe said the agency relies in part on volunteers to work the mobile clinic, which is where some of the vagueness may arise. On average, there are three MAS staff members and as many volunteers, if not more. The volunteers, most of whom have done this for many years, sometimes handle money, Gulbe said, and they are trained extensively. She did not elaborate on the training. She acknowledged the potential for problems with SPOT, but she said the claims made by Coriell are over the top. “You’re comparing apples to oranges when you’re comparing SPOT to what he’s used to” in his former job, she said. So what of the appearance that Coriell was fired for flying a little too close to the sun? “That was not the ultimate reason,” Gulbe said. She could not elaborate. The Aug. 31 report offered in summation of Metro’s routine audit shows a stark reality that is on pace with much of what Coriell has said. There appear to be problems with how MAS presents its fees for services, the way it uses (or misuses, or flat doesn’t use) the computer system for animal management, and its fiscal administration — including issues with accounting and access to the agency’s financial information. By not following up on unpaid animal licenses, for instance, the agency is inadvertently bypassing a load of revenue. Its failure to implement guidelines by which its employees can deviate from standard fees gives the impression of preferential treatment. And by not maintaining records of such behavior, MAS’s plan to offer a sliding scale for low-income pet owners — supposedly concomitant to the dog ordinance — can potentially ring hollow. Gulbe said the staff is trained deeply enough to handle the above issues without losing control of the ship, so to speak, which displaces the need for specific guidelines in many instances. There is also trouble with the money. According to the report, staffers with routine access to the computer system and the cash can also manually change the stored financial information with no oversight. (MAS told auditors it has since placed its assistant director for operation in charge of independently reviewing all financial reports.) For his part, Meloche has unmitigated access to all parts of the computer system, including the financial records, without oversight. And clerks, who Meloche has said shouldn’t meddle in the agency’s accounting (as in Coriell’s case), can close out registers at any point during the day, giving them access to the cash system receipt balance. In short, if they can see that, they can make sure the cash balances — no matter how much is actually on hand. Gulbe said she suspects this could happen anywhere with a computer system, adding: “Nothing is changed or augmented without the approval of the supervisor.” With regard to animal records, MAS is doing a poor job maintaining complete, accurate documentation, such that it’s taking months for pet owners to get license tags, the report said. Vaccination information — a hot-button portion of the dog ordinance, which gave MAS access to previously sealed veterinarians’ records — is not being properly accounted for. The audit found numerous instances where incomplete animal files led to difficulties between MAS and customers, including one in which a microchip was implanted into an animal but not recorded in the system, rendering it useless.In general, Gulbe said MAS has known of these issues and is working toward correcting them. “We understand where we need to go and we’re looking at how we’re going to get there,” she said. “We look at this document as a positive to help us do what we do better.” It should be noted that MAS has undergone some broad changes in the last few years. Four months after getting a new computer system, in July 2005, there was a new director in town. In January of this year, a hammerhead new animal ordinance took effect in Louisville, changing some of the things MAS has done for a long time pretty drastically. The information discussed in the audit was taken from July 1, 2006 to March 31, 2007, which is significant mostly because it falls at least a year after the first round of major changes and mostly before the second. “A year’s a drop in the bucket out there as far as what needed to be done (at MAS),” Gulbe said. Included in the report is the MAS response, which is robust on paper: almost point-by-point, the agency says it will do better, that it’s trying, it just needs some more time. That’s what Gulbe said as well. Mike Norman, Metro’s chief auditor, said it is clear MAS is still experiencing growing pains, and that what the audit found “wasn’t awful, wasn’t great.” His department will revisit MAS at the end of the year to see how, or if, the agency has progressed. Contact the writer at sgeorge@leoweekly.com

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