A damning state audit by the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food found that lax processes and poor record keeping left the department vulnerable to “fraud, theft and other serious risks.”
The review, released Tuesday to state lawmakers, found the department poorly overseen its own property and fleet, as well as its inspection programs, and recommended that officials put in place new internal controls.
“There are many surprising findings in this review,” said House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, during a hearing on the report Tuesday afternoon. “Unsettling.”
The exam follows a separate negative department audit in November and another from February That found the agency issuing rifles to their cattle inspectors they didn’t need and ATVs they didn’t use. The current review focuses primarily on the culture and practices of the department led by former Commissioners LuAnn Adams, Kerry Gibson and Logan Wilde.
Commissioner Craig Buttars, who was appointed to the role at the end of last year, thanked the auditors for their work and agreed to their recommendations. In a letter, the department stated that the department had already taken steps “to strengthen oversight, prosecution and accountability”.
Speaking to lawmakers, Buttars said the agency was “very aware” of many of the shortcomings highlighted in the report.
Here is a look at the results of the audit:
The audit recommends that the department improve oversight within its inspection programs and finds that most Regulatory Services employees lack “adequate written guidelines” for tracking and enforcing violations that inspectors discover.
For example, the division’s retail food program failed to follow up at least 457 “critical violations” identified during routine inspections in 2020.
The most common violations relate to inadequate hand washing facilities or signage and the lack of permits for grocers. Facilities can also become soiled because of unclean or not disinfected food or if there are signs of vermin.
The data suggests that enforcement of these violations was low, not just in 2020. In the past five years, there have been more routine inspections to identify non-compliance than follow-up inspections, the auditors said – suggesting that little effort has been made to ensure all issues the inspectors identified are resolved.
The audit reports that inspectors called out an uncleaned food preparation machine in four consecutive reviews within two years. However, no documented follow-up was planned to ensure the issue was resolved.
An “effective regulatory program” would come back to establishments when these types of problems are identified and document their resolution to ensure compliance, the audit notes said.
“Allowing facilities to continue operating without clearing up the violation can put the public at risk of foodborne illness,” the auditors said. “We found relatively few reported health complaints attributed to grocery retailers, which gives some assurance that health guidelines are being followed, at least minimally. However, some foodborne diseases are never reported. “
The auditors said their main concern was tracking and the “precision” of enforcement by the department.
The reviewers suggest that the grocery retail program should ensure that violations are followed up within 10 days, that cases are followed up until resolved, and that written guidelines are in place to ensure violations are resolved. The department should also create meaningful performance indicators to show how effective programs are in preventing and correcting violations, they said.
In a written response to the audit, the UDAF stated that it generally agreed with the findings and recommendations and that as a result of the audit, “significant gaps in policies and procedures” were identified and would be remedied.
However, the department also pushed back some of the findings, noting that while there are no specific guidelines and procedures for the grocery retail program, officials have relied on those of the standards program of the manufactured food standards program, which has similar priorities. The department also denied allegations that it did not pursue critical violations, finding that some of these violations were informal and not properly documented.
The audit also targeted the previous leadership of the Agriculture Authority who had failed to put in place safeguards against fraud and theft.
For example, the agency has an “unusually weak asset control system” and failed to keep track of some of its assets – including trailers and weight calibration equipment valued at up to $ 40,000.
The auditors also found the agency had not requested an internal audit in more than five years and criticized managers for a “unwillingness to ensure accountability,” a mindset the rest of the workforce may have adopted.
“[T]his relaxed attitude towards management oversight sets the company inappropriately, ”the report said.
The agency does not have its own internal audit bureau – which is likely contributing to this issue – and previously relied on the Utah Department of Natural Resources for these reviews, according to the audit. However, these investigations were not thorough enough for a division the size and complexity of the UDAF, the examiners found.
Additionally, the review found that the UDAF “did not fully meet” its federal funding requirements and, among other missteps, did not properly calculate staff time for these grants.
In addition, the agency has done a poor job of collecting data on its fee collections, which means that the process of setting UDAF fees “lacks transparency and accountability” according to auditors. As a result, the fee income for several UDAF programs is “consistently” insufficient to cover the expenses, according to the exam.
In response to these findings, UDAF leadership generally agreed with the audit’s concerns about sloppy record keeping and lack of transparency, but said that turnover in the agency’s upper echelons “presents challenges in creating a consistent culture.”
The UDAF announced it will improve its training on federal grant guidelines and better document how that money is being spent.
The agency recently completed an inventory of all of its assets, valued at more than $ 5,000, and will urge its departments to track this property in the future, according to the UDAF response. There are also plans to employ an internal auditor.
UDAF has also failed to monitor the use of government vehicles in its fleet – which in one case resulted in the animal industry mistakenly reimbursing an employee for more than $ 7,400 for unqualified kilometers.
In this case, the worker filed nine different claims for reimbursement for trips with a government vehicle, although UDAF workers are only reimbursed for using their own car.
“This would be comparable to an employee buying a computer with a government purchase card and then submitting the receipt in order to have the costs reimbursed in person,” says the exam. “This egregious example shows that the department lacks adequate controls on reimbursing employees for trips in the state.”
And that’s not the only problem related to the fleet, which the review says costs UDAF nearly $ 1 million a year. Due to mismanagement, some employees are designated as government vehicles that they do not need, while other agency workers take their personal car on business trips.
In fact, 63 company cars or 43% of the vehicle fleet were idle more than half the time during the nine-week period analyzed by the auditors.
The report recommended that the UDAF use GPS tracking software to keep track of how long government vehicles have been parked in parking lots, whether employees are driving too fast, and where they are going. They also advised the agency to switch to using a fleet of vehicles so employees can share cars rather than assigning vehicles to individual employees.
UDAF agreed to the audit results and requested the employee mentioned in the report to return the approximately $ 7,400 in improper mileage refunds.
However, in response to concerns about government cars sitting around, the agency found that the review happened in the first few months of 2020 – when vehicle use was likely to have declined due to COVID-19 restrictions and the time of year.
The department hires an employee to coordinate the agency fleet and to collect information about the use of the vehicles. It is also doing an “in-depth internal review” of car usage and will build a fleet of vehicles.