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Official criticizes utilities audit

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By David Giuliani

A city councilman on Wednesday criticized an audit into credits for utilities bills, calling it inadequate and urging the city to finish the job itself.

Earlier this month, State Auditor Hector Balderas approved the audit, which was performed by Albuquerque-based Accounting and Consulting Group. But City Councilman Morris Madrid said the audit left many questions unanswered.

In particular, Madrid questioned whether the auditing firm interviewed key people involved in an $81,000 credit for Luna Community College’s natural gas bill.

In February, a City Council majority fired Utilities Director George DuFour over billing credits. The city sought an audit to look into the issue. Officials said DuFour may have taken part in corruption by issuing credits.

However, the auditing firm didn’t indicate that any criminal activity had taken place.

During a City Council meeting, Madrid said the Accounting and Consulting Group should have worked to find who was responsible for the credit.

“I don’t think we should turn the other way. It shouldn’t depend on dollar amount or the title of anyone involved,” Madrid said.

DuFour has said he had the verbal permission of then-City Manager Sharon Caballero to give the credit. But Madrid said it’s apparent that the firm never asked Caballero whether she approved the credit. He doubted she did.

He said the city had followed a longtime standard procedure for approving credits to bills, but that practice stopped in December 2007. That was shortly after DuFour was hired as utilities director.

The city had misread Luna’s natural gas meter for at least a couple of years, so the city informed Luna that it owed more than $150,000 it hadn’t been previously billed for.

Madrid said the city had documentation that it had reached an agreement with Luna to pay off the bill in 2007, before DuFour was hired. He questioned why DuFour began the negotiations again a year later when the process had already been completed.

DuFour has said that he waived off the $81,000 in charges because the city had issued late penalties for the unpaid gas. But Madrid said at the council meeting that the issue of late penalties was already handled before DuFour arrived.

Councilman Andrew Feldman noted that the audit cost the city $48,000 and it was time to move forward. He said it was apparent that the city needed tighter controls.

“Instead of beating on a dead horse, we need to make sure we have new regulations and that they are followed. The negotiations between the city and Luna were done in good faith,” said Feldman, a Luna professor.

Madrid continued to push for questions to get answered.

“This dead horse is starting to smell,” he said. “This issue was resolved to everyone’s satisfaction in 2007. If the issue was resolved, why was it revived again? The city doesn’t have the power to give anyone something without getting something in return.”

Councilman Cruz Roybal agreed.

“We are the stewards of the money,” he said. “I’m not willing to say, ‘Let it go by.’ People on fixed incomes are making up for that deficit. Somebody will have to pay for it.”

The council generally agreed to have the city administration get further questions answered about the Luna credit.

City Manager Timothy Dodge said earlier this week that because the city believes the Luna credit was improperly given, it would have to ask the college to pay the $81,000. He said Luna could appeal the matter if it disputed the amount.

The Luna administration responded that it is prepared to look into the issue and negotiate.

On Thursday morning, Jeff McWhorter of the Accounting and Consulting Group, who didn’t attend the council meeting, said he was disappointed with Madrid’s feelings toward the audit.

“He has a right to his opinion, and I respect that opinion,” McWhorter said, adding that he believed the report was objective, unbiased and exhaustive.

“The issue wasn’t Sharon Caballero or George DuFour. The issue was grounded in internal control processes and oversight. We are not a legal investigative body. We are an investigative body as far as financial reporting and internal controls.”

He said his firm wasn’t able to get in touch with Caballero. He said her alleged verbal approval wouldn’t be relevant anyway.

“A verbal approval is never sufficient. In the report, it clearly states that the approval form was not signed by Sharon Caballero,” McWhorter said, adding that was a “glaring weakness.”