Audit Prompts 'Complete Internal Review' Of Fisheries Agency

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Louisiana's wildlife and fisheries secretary said he's ordered a "complete internal review" of his agency's operations after auditors found questionable spending, missing state-owned property and shoddy management of finances under past leadership.

         "I was very disturbed to learn that (the department) deviated from its core mission and best management practices," Charlie Melancon, who took over the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries this year, wrote in response to an audit released Monday.

         The review by Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera's office details widespread financial issues across the department under Melancon's predecessor, raising questions about millions of dollars in spending. For example, auditors say Gulf oil spill recovery money intended for fish testing instead paid for unnecessary iPads, cameras, boats and now-missing fishing equipment.

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         Draft audit findings had been previously reported by The Associated Press in September. Purpera's office released the official report publicly Monday, which included Melancon's response.

         The publicly-released audit toned down language used in the draft version that had suggested the fish testing program was so mismanaged that it "cannot ensure that the work accomplished was sufficient" to declare the seafood was safe. Instead, the final version cites a 2015 state health department report that said the sample results found substances that "were below concentrations that could potentially threaten the public's health."

         Melancon didn't object to the audit findings and said mismanagement of agency money or property "will not be tolerated." He said employees were being retrained on financial policies; the number of credit cards handed out to employees has been cut from 413 to 118; and more scrutiny has been added across spending types.

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         "I am confident that the reforms I am putting in place, once fully implemented, will result in focused, efficient and ethical operations," he wrote.

         The audit scrutinized department management from 2010 through 2015 when Robert Barham was in charge, appointed by then-Gov. Bobby Jindal. Melancon was named secretary when Gov. John Bel Edwards succeeded Jindal in January.

         Auditors found that federal grant dollars paid for a used boat that "appeared to have little or no benefit to the agency," was used twice and cost the department nearly $38,000 to maintain and repair. The agency bought a $1.8 million used airplane without getting a proper inspection first, according to the report, and damage found later could cost up to $581,000 in repairs.

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         Department-owned guns are missing. The report says overtime wasn't properly tracked. And nearly $764,000 was spent on clothing, sponsorships and contracts questioned by auditors, who said it wasn't clear the spending was needed for state business.

         A large portion of the report dug into a $10.5 million BP-financed seafood safety program overseen by the department after the massive 2010 Gulf oil spill. The audit found insufficient sampling of fish, excessive spending and missing property in the work of a fish testing team based in the Plaquemines Parish community of Venice.

         The sampling team spent the equivalent of $2,796 per tested fish, Purpera's office says.

         In a recent interview with AP, Barham defended his management of the seafood safety program, saying the fish testing was done properly, came in under-budget and didn't cost the state's taxpayers.

         Barham's 10-page official response to the audit, filed by his lawyer Mary Olive Pierson, repeated similar themes, saying the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries tested a sufficient number of fish samples and the health department found "that Louisiana seafood was safe."

         Other former officials involved with the testing program and named in the audit also defended the sampling work in written responses.

         Barham, who now oversees the Office of State Parks, also objected to criticism about the used plane, saying in his response it was another office's job to inspect state aircraft.

         On the broader allegations of financial deficiencies across the agency, Pierson wrote: "Mr. Barham, while he does not deny that the buck stops with the secretary, was not directly involved with the circumstances of the other findings and recommendations made by the auditor."

         State Inspector General Stephen Street, whose independent office probes suspected fraud and corruption in government, has been looking into the department.

         – by AP Reporter Melinda Deslatte



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