Caldera audits square old accounts

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By Roger Snodgrass

When Congress established the Valles Caldera National Preserve in 2000 as an independent government agency, it probably didn’t mean that their creation would be financially unaccountable during its first nine years.


But one thing led to another and nine years later the governing board of trustees has finally completed audits for a period of three of those years, from 2004-2007.


On Wednesday, the trust announced that those first audits are available to the public on the Caldera’s website (www.vallescaldera.gov/about/trust/trust_ref.aspx).


Getting even that far has been a struggle.


“You have to think hard about what caused this,” Trust Executive Director Gary Bratcher said in a telephone interview this morning. “There were growing pains, changes in trustees and the administrative staff, and so forth.”


“The important part of this is that it’s all been investigated and finalized,” he said. “It gives us a list of corrective actions, many of which are already underway, so that we can right the ship and go forward.”


In a report to Congress earlier this year, the trust explained that one of its goals for 2008 was to complete this first batch of audits, which was supposed to be available in January. An audit for 2008 was supposed to follow on March 31.


That one is now scheduled to be ready sometime this fall.


The board has been under pressure to complete an audit since at least November 2005, when the Government Accountability Office observed, “The Board has yet to conduct an audit because it has not produced auditable financial statements.”


Interviewing a former business manager, the GAO investigators learned that the trust had contracted with an audit firm in September 2003, but were advised by the auditor to delay their audit until 2004, because “the Trust’s financial records had only recently been established on the new financial system operated by the National Business Center.”


GAO is currently conducting a second audit prescribed by Congress, due in the fall.


Bratcher said they would receive the current findings in time to include them in their evaluations.


“They received the first copies off the press,” he said.


Some of the blame for confusion and delay can be assigned to the federal accounting systems employed by the preserve, which used the Department of Agriculture (Forest Service) system at first, switched to the National Business Center (Interior Department) and then back to Forest Service.


“We didn’t have one source point,” said Dennis Rino, administrative officer. “Now that we’re in the Forest Service system, we think that’s going to resolve all the problems.”


The audits were performed by the Albuquerque accounting firm, Moss-Adams and are presented in three separate reports, comprising about 300 pages in total.


The findings are couched in careful language and disclaimers, noting for example that it was not the auditors’ job to determine the legality of any particular action.


Many of the findings have to do with improper or inadequate procedures and their compliance with federal standards.


The reports found “reportable non-compliance with laws and regulations,” inconsistencies in information and weaknesses in internal controls.


“Of these weaknesses, we found fourteen that we considered material weaknesses,” the auditors reported in the 2006-7 audit. “A material weakness is a condition in which the design of operation of one or more of the internal control components does not reduce to a relatively low level the risk that errors, fraud, or noncompliance in amounts that would be material to the financial statements may occur and not be detected promptly by the employees in the normal course of performing their duties.”


“While there are many findings in the audit there are no indications of malfeasance, fraud or misappropriation of funds,” Bratcher said in the trust’s announcement about the audits.


The 89,000 acre preserve is located about 20 miles west of Los Alamos.


The trust will hold its next public meeting in Los Alamos on June 11.