Audubon Nature Institute under fire as audit reveals nearly $500K of public funds were used inappropriately
NEW ORLEANS – The New Orleans Inspector General (IG) is recommending that the Audubon Nature Institute make major changes to the way it handles finances, even suggesting that current procedures may be out of harmony with Louisiana’s Constitution.
The IG says proof of this is found in its audit of the organization, a report that was released Wednesday. The document details how tens of thousands of dollars in public funds were spent on holiday parties, Saints tailgates and perks, including TVs and iPads, for its employees.
According to WWL, the IG says the problem boils down to Audubon functioning on funds from two sources, public and private sectors, but using only one account for both funds.
Inspector General Derry Harper strongly recommends separating the two accounts to prevent misuse of public money, and according to his recently released report, such misuse has already happened.
The report states, for example, that throughout 2013-2014, nearly half a million dollars in public funds were spent on items that “lacked a public purpose” and “may have violated the Louisiana Constitution.”
But Audubon had a response to this, explaining that the city’s Audubon Commission pays the Institute a $50,000 annual management fee to run facilities that generate $50 million in taxes and public revenues every year.
Audubon claimed that fee allowed it to mix in some private funds with public tax and entrance fee revenues to pay for things like employee perks.
The IG didn't find this argument convincing. Inspector General Harper said, “We strongly disagree with the Institute’s position that at any point, any of the funds that they’re generating become private funds. All of them are public funds, unless they’re totally separate from their obligations to the commission.”
A second controversial issue is the way Audubon responded to the IG’s audit when it was first completed in 2017.
At that time, the Audubon Institute argued that it wasn’t a public entity subject to the Constitution, and in presenting this argument, Audubon delayed the release of the report for more than two years.
The IG, unhappy with Audubon’s attempt to negate the legitimacy of the audit itself, and with the institute’s excuse for combining public and private funds, suggests that its current accounting/financial procedures “obfuscate” or hide the true use of the money.
Audubon’s attorney, Rebecca Dietz, fired back, saying, “There’s no hiding of money within Audubon. The OIG was able to see every single expenditure and every single revenue source.”
That said, Dietz, acknowledged that some of the IG’s notes were helpful, such as the suggestion that the blending of public and private money in a single bank account was imprudent.
Ditez said, “We appreciate them pointing that out to us and we’re changing our accounting structure to address that.”
The IG says Audubon faces two more audits of its expenses, in an analysis that will put a ‘magnifying glass’ on their operations.
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