Mecklenburg County has hired an outside firm to conduct a financial audit of its Department of Social Services, including a study of a program that solicits donations to benefit foster children at Christmas.
Two DSS employees have been suspended with pay, pending an investigation into whether they took $110,000 from the Giving Tree, a DSS-sponsored charity that solicits money to buy gifts for children in foster care and other DSS clients during the holidays.
The county will pay Cherry, Bakaert & Holland about $50,000 for an audit of DSS, which officials said Monday could take about 250 hours of work over the next few months. The firm conducts the county's annual audit, among other work.
The firm is expected to study all procedures on money that goes in and out of DSS, and offer recommendations on how systems could be improved. DSS is the county's second-largest department, with a budget of $160million that includes a mix of federal, state, county and private dollars.
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DSS Director Mary Wilson said she wants the firm to “look at every source of funding that comes in and what are the processes and procedures to receive those funds, to account for those funds and then to use those funds for the benefits of our customers.”
Wilson said she wanted to conduct an audit of the department as part of an ongoing look at other divisions within DSS since her arrival last summer. But Wilson said the effort was expedited because of an ongoing investigation of the Giving Tree program.
The county has said it discovered that several checks from November 2008 through January of this year were made out to a DSS employee who also does volunteer work for the Giving Tree program in the DSS Community Resources Office. Other checks were authorized as payable to the sister of another DSS employee. The sister is not a DSS employee, officials said.
Among organizations listed as supporters on the Giving Tree Web site: Second String Santas, Young Lawyers, employees of Wachovia and Bank of America, and Project Joy, the holiday fund drive launched by Observer columnist Tommy Tomlinson.
The two employees, whose names have not been released, are still suspended, pending the outcome of an investigation by the county's Internal Audit Department. The new audit will look at the fund's activities from July 2007 through March of this year, said Dena Diorio, the county's finance director.
“I do think there is some question and concern about how someone was able to write fairly large checks without the director knowing anything about it,” Wilson said. “… I don't know if (the system has) gone wrong or if the controls were just never in place.”
Diorio said DSS is paying for the audit, and its findings would be public record. The county said it is using an outside firm to have objectivity in the process, and because it would be difficult to conduct the review as quickly and thoroughly using county staff.
County commissioners chairman Jennifer Roberts praised news about the audit.
“I think that it is important to re-establish confidence in internal procedures for DSS, and using an outside firm to do that with a quick return is a good use of DSS's time and money so we can establish confidence and continue to work with our community partners,” Roberts said.