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That Was Definitely Not OK

Despite the protestations of the consultant hired by the Albany Police Department at the 11th hour before a Common Council quizzing [“Tough Questions Continue,” Newsfront, April 1], an audit by the city comptroller, Thomas Nitido, found serious weaknesses in the accounting for, and appropriateness of expenses from, the police department’s Seized Asset Fund and Criminal Expense Fund for the past several years.

These two funds have not historically passed through the oversight of the comptroller, unlike the funds for every other city department.

Nitido’s audit found that 31 percent of the dollar amount of seized asset expenditures from 2000 through May 26, 2004, lacked supporting documentation. In 2003 alone, 60 percent of expenditures lacked documentation. For the Criminal Expense Fund, lack of supporting documents peaked at 80 percent in 2001, but is no longer a problem because in 2002 the comptroller began issuing receipts ahead of time for cash disbursements.

The audit also found that seized asset “funds were used for a variety of purposes including retirement dinners, fundraisers, decoration for offices, and a variety of other expenses that, according to federal guidelines, are not among the categories of permitted expenses or are within the categories of prohibited expenses.” Prohibited expenditures include “any expense that would create the appearance of extravagance, waste, or impropriety” and “non-official government use.” The audit estimates that 3 to 16 percent of expenses were “questionable” in these ways, though it notes earlier that it was impossible to test appropriateness for those expenditures that were lacking documentation.

Nitido recommended that the funds go through the city’s accounting system, that seized asset funds no longer be used for charitable contributions, retirement dinners, or other “questionable expenses,” and that the APD develop written standards detailing the proper use of funds.

Though some of the activists who have been calling for APD reform have said they hope “heads will roll” over the revelations, Nitido said that “the purpose of the audit is not to point fingers, it’s to make sure we have a system that isn’t vulnerable to abuse.”

Common Council members, who requested the audit last winter, seemed to agree, as they accepted the audit with little request for clarification. Mayor Jennings, however, told the Times Union the amount involved in the audit “wasn’t significant.” Nitido sampled 25 percent of all expenditures.

Nitido added that he was optimistic that all of his recommendations would come to pass, especially since change has already started. Under the APD’s new leadership (former chief Robert Wolfgang and former public safety commissioner John C. Nielsen both left their posts last spring) of Chief James Turley, said Nitido, “the police department was already moving aggressively to change accounting procedures. Even at the time we started our field work, they had started to make changes.”

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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