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    Audit blasts lapses at civil rights agency

    Slow case work and misuse of funds top the problems state auditors find at the Commission on Human Relations.


    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published December 6, 2001

    TALLAHASSEE -- State auditors on Wednesday lambasted the Florida Commission on Human Relations for misspending public money, failing to perform timely investigations, losing computer equipment and a number of other serious failures.

    Derick Daniel, executive director of the agency that investigates discrimination complaints, said he has been trying to correct all of the problems since he took the job in July.

    Much of the criticism was aimed at work done under the former director, Ron McElrath, who resigned in May 2000 after members of the commission obtained the results of an earlier management review.

    "I have been focused on solving a myriad of problems that had accumulated over the last decade," Daniel wrote in response to the audit.

    In the first audit ever done during the 32-year history of the commission, state Auditor General William O. Monroe said the commission has failed to clear a "considerable backlog" of complaints despite significant increases in personnel. Seventy-five percent of the claims filed with the commission were not handled during the periods set by law, Monroe noted.

    The law requires the commission to determine within 180 days of receiving a complaint under the state's Civil Rights Act whether there is reasonable cause to believe a violation has occurred. The backlog of cases, many of them more than 4 years old, has in some instances allowed the four-year statute of limitations for filing a civil suit to expire before a complaint was investigated. That circumstance has denied citizens the right to recover damages.

    Daniel said he has reassigned personnel to clear the backlog and has tried to focus on cases that are more than 4 years old.

    In addition to a failure to properly handle complaints, auditors found:

    Improper use of state purchasing cards, including the failure of commission employees to document transactions totaling $72,054. Daniel said the commission had no reliable filing system when he took over.

    The disappearance of laptop and desktop computers purchased by the commission. Daniel said he has located the computers, two of which were being used at home by employees.

    Improper use of state money to buy food in excess of the travel allowance allocated to employees. Daniel said he is seeking reimbursement of $4,900 spent on food by employees who charged the purchases to state credit cards.

    The use of private hotels for meetings at a cost of up to $500 a day when the meetings could be conducted for far less money in state office buildings. Auditors recommended moving all meetings to state buildings in Tallahassee so the commission would not have to also pay travel expenses for staff. Daniel said he will comply with the recommendation.

    Improper use of rental cars. Auditors found that some commission employees rented luxury cars or vans without justifying the need and frequently filed incomplete or inaccurate travel vouchers.

    Travel vouchers filled out months after trips were made, leaving auditors unable to determine whether car rentals and other expenses were justifiable.

    Cell phone bills not being reviewed for personal calls. Those reviewed by auditors indicate a substantial portion of the calls were not made on state business and should be paid for by employees. Daniel said the bills are now being reviewed.

    The commission is governed by 12 members appointed by the governor for 4-year terms. Commission members appoint the executive director to oversee the work of 72 employees.

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    From the Times state desk