The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency has failed to adequately track credit card expenses or report lost or stolen equipment, according to a state audit released Monday.
The state comptroller's office says that its auditors found dozens of problems with credit card purchases, including a violation of purchasing limits and nine transactions in which employees of the TWRA paid for items prohibited under state policies.
The comptroller also says the TWRA has not fixed problems related to its management of state-owned equipment, despite being asked to address the failings in two previous audits over six years. Those deficiencies have led to equipment being missing for as long as four years without being reported.
Auditors did not suggest criminal wrongdoing or assign blame for the mistakes, most of which appeared to involve small items or sums of money. In its official response, the TWRA concurred with the audit's findings, and in many cases, officials said, they already have undertaken steps to address the problems.
The audit comes ahead of a review next year by the state legislature of the commission and the TWRA, which oversees and enforces the state's hunting, fishing and boating laws. Claiming mismanagement, critics in the legislature succeeded last year in forcing some changes to the Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission, including the addition of two commissioners, but they may demand more.
"It looks like the agency is out of control," said state Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, the East Tennessee lawmaker who has been the agency's most frequent critic.
Next year, lawmakers are scheduled to debate whether to extend the Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission's charter or replace it. An initial hearing on the issue will take place next week.
State Sen. Mike Bell, the chairman of the legislature's Joint Government Oversight Committee, declined to comment on the audit's findings, saying he had not had time to review it.
Purchasing rules broken
The 40-page audit is the first since 2010 of the TWRA. The agency employs 701 people assigned to four regional offices.
According to the audit, TWRA employees made 57,000 purchases with state credit cards from July 1, 2009, to Jan. 24, 2013, and much of the review deals with how well the agency monitors these transactions.
Auditors found that out of 154 purchases they reviewed, 36 were done improperly. One transaction for $3,935 was split four ways to get around a $2,000 spending limit, while $1,041 was spent on items that state policies said could not be bought with a state card — computer equipment, utility bills and gift cards.
Auditors also found instances in which the TWRA could not produce receipts, transaction logs or signed statements verifying the purchases were appropriate. Auditors said the transactions had been approved nonetheless, giving TWRA workers little incentive to follow purchasing rules.
The audit also highlighted persistent problems within the agency tracking the $35.5 million in equipment, such as computers, firearms and vehicles, that has been issued to its agents. In a review of records related to 21 items, the comptroller's office found that, on average, equipment was missing more than a year before it was reported lost or stolen.
In the longest case, an unnamed item was gone 1,689 days, more than four and a half years, before reports were filed.
The agency also was slow to report lost items to the comptroller — on average about four months slower than the 30 days called for under state policies. Auditors added that the agency had not tagged many of the items as required under state policies, in part because those responsible for equipment believed the tags would rub off when used.
The problems tracking equipment first were raised in an audit six years ago and again in 2010. The agency said it had partially implemented the recommendations from those audits and would tighten its procedures further.
Auditors also found renewed problems in the TWRA's "crop lease" program, in which farmers lease land from the agency. Regional wildlife managers regularly failed to follow state bidding rules, and even the agency's contracts administrator did not understand some requirements.
Niceley said the audit shows the 13-member commission, chosen by the governor and other state leaders, does not have sufficient control over the agency. He plans to recommend an alternative, such as having the agency report to a full-time commissioner.
"They don't know what the bureaucrats are doing," he said. "The whole thing is not working."