Audit could cost future state, federal funding for Highway Safety Commission

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - A searing audit into the Louisiana highway safety commission details how former leaders misused your tax dollars. The department of public safety conducted the internal audit on one of its own departments, and there's a reason the commission is now under a microscope.

The Department of Public Safety heads the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission and launched an internal audit on its own branch.

In the audit released May 10, auditors looked at policies and procedures between July 1st, 2016 and August 27th, 2017.

They found 15 areas of concern, including commission directors having no oversight or control over payroll.  The audit found one employee who worked 500 hours, 226 of those hours were overtime.

Another finding: leaders violated state ethics laws by accepting tickets to the essence festival.

But one of the more glaring problems found: the alleged improper spending of federal grants.

"Their only job is to get and expend federal funds for the purpose of educating people on how to avoid accidents," Joel Friedman, Tulane law professor said. 

Federal funds make up 92 percent of the commissions budget. Dr. Katara Williams was the Executive Director during the time frame auditors examined.

She responded to the findings through her attorney by asking that several of the findings " be completely removed from this audit."

"Every answer is that's not true or everyone always did it that way or we're so busy we just didn't see these things going on; its not really our fault accepting no responsibility for not one of those things... Now of course they're out. There are alleged statutory perhaps criminal perhaps ethical violations," Friedman said.

Lisa Freeman is the current executive director of the commission; the current members agreed with the audit's recommendations to fix the issues.

Friedman points out that's easy when the findings were the result of someone else's work.

"It certainly is a warning to the now in place Highway Safety Commission leadership you better do a better job than your predecessors in monitoring what's going on because this isn't funny money we give you going to affairs and politicking in scratching everyone's back this is serious stuff," he said.

Also under the department of public safety are the Louisiana state police. Rafael Goyeneche with the Metropolitan Crime Commission says the department saw how former state police superintendent Mike Edmonson allegedly mismanaged spending.

Goyeneche says the Department of Public Safety wanted to examine its other branches.

He said, "This is a symptom of some of the problems that plagued the Louisiana state police under his tenure…. every dollar that's misspent is one less dollar for the mission of this agency which is educating the public."

Friedman adds, every page that shows an example of possible mismanagement of money adds another page to the public's distrust.

He said, "You're misspending the public's money, your money, my money all your viewers tax money those people who spend our money should have at least a higher standard as the people in the private sector if not higher and we find they operate at a lower standard and we should expect more."

I reached out to the attorney general to see about possible charges, they told me they could not comment on this issue. Goyeneche also pointed out the legislative auditor and district attorney should have been notified about the findings in the audit. I was not able to speak with them tonight either.