Alabama’s highest score in the Center for Public Integrity Report came in the Internal Auditing category. It scored 87, ranking it fourth-best in the country.
The high score comes from the state’s having an office dedicated to auditing government agencies that is largely not dependent on political favor and that releases copies of its audits to the public. The Alabama Department of Examiners of Public Accounts regularly audits every state and county office, board and commission and all accounts that receive or disburse government money. It is overseen by the Legislative Committee on Public Accounts, which appoints the director and can influence the budget.
The current chief examiner, Ron Jones, has been reappointed to his position every seven years since 1982, indication that political pressure is at least restrained. Other auditors in the examiners office are Merit System employees, giving them protection against being fired or disciplined for political reasons.
That protected status was threatened in 2014 when two legislative leaders introduced a bill that, in part, would have taken the auditors in the examiners office out of the Merit System. That bill, which would have given the Legislature more oversight of government finances, died last year.
The work of the examiners office is not flawless. There have been cases in which auditors failed to discover financial wrongdoing that later came to light and resulted in criminal charges. But in other cases auditors have uncovered major financial wrongdoing. It was auditors from the examiners office who flagged suspicious activity surrounding financing of the Jefferson County Sewer System bonds that resulted in the county’s 2011 bankruptcy, the largest government bankruptcy filing in history at that time, and the conviction of four former Jefferson County commissioners.
One drawback cited in the study is that government officials are not required to correct issues noted in audits by the examiners, and the examiners office does not have the authority to force changes or charges. Oftentimes money management issues are addressed as a matter of course, but not always.
At times the examiners point out problems in several audits because they are not corrected. For instance, the Birmingham City Schools audit in 2013 pointed out that several violations had been noted in previous reports and never fixed, including concerns that had been raised about public money being spent on non-public activities and about management of money collected and spent by local schools.