Jim Dey | Spending watchdog finds fertile ground out West

Jim Dey | Spending watchdog finds fertile ground out West

There he goes again.

Adam Andrzejewski (pronounced Angie-eff-ski) just can't resist playing the role of skunk at the government bureaucrats' garden party.

Best known as the ramrod of OpenTheBooks.com, Andrzejewski and his colleagues have made it their job to find out how the government — federal, state and local — is spending the public's money. With his reports on questionable public spending — lavish pensions, farm subsidies and bureaucratic waste — he has stepped on quite a few toes.

Now, he's at it again — this time in Wyoming of all places.

Andrzejewski's latest report concerns how local school districts there are spending public dollars, the revelations of which were so dramatic that they caught the attention of the candidates for governor there.

The disclosures are part of what Andrzejewski calls the "Wyoming Transparency Project." Beginning in May 2017, OpenTheBooks sent out 1,600 Freedom of Information requests seeking debit/credit card spending details from every unit of government in the state.

Of the state's 48 school districts, just 10 responded.

"The others just ignored our requests or wanted to charge us excessive fees for the records," he said.

OpenTheBooks continues to seek the information through the courts. It also is suing the state auditor, who refused to turn over the state's checkbook. OpenTheBooks successfully sued the late Judy Baar Topinka, Illinois' former comptroller, when she, too, refused to make state spending information available to the organization.

Although only a relative handful of school districts responded, Andrzejewski was struck by what he found.

One district — Laramie County School District No. 2 — disclosed $166,000 in credit card spending that involved 879 transactions. But it could not tell OpenTheBooks what the money was spent on or to whom it was paid.

"The report I am able to pull from the system just shows the vendor as debit card and the total dollar amount. ... If you would like to view the debit card statements, you are able to come to our office in Pine Bluff, Wyoming," a school official emailed OpenTheBooks.

But it was credit and debit cards records from the Natrona County School District in Casper — roughly 13,000 students — that really drew interest.

Earlier this year, the district closed four schools, offered employees retirement incentives and eliminated positions to save $2.5 million.

So OpenTheBooks was surprised to see that the Natrona County district ran up $9.6 million in credit and debit card expenditures during the 2017 calender year. As part of the district's "decentralized" management model, 1,400 of its 2,500 employees carry district credit cards that were used to complete 28,000 transactions.

"We find a lot of egregious expenditures in the plastic," Andrzejewski said, noting that the widespread distribution of district credit and debit cards is an open invitation to abuse.

In the case of Natrona County, OpenTheBooksfound "categorized expenditures on 'travel' ($622,473), 'entertainment' ($638,052), 'recreation' ($445,682), 'dining-out' ($287,698) and 'charitable giving' ($96,900)."

"These expenditures weren't just for pencils and crayons. Natrona County school officials spent hundreds of taxpayer dollars at establishments such as the local Dr. Fermento Beer and Winemaking Shop, the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame in Missouri, the Dollywood Amusement Park in Nashville[sic], Tennessee, and the Elitch's amusement park in Denver, Colorado," he said.

What OpenTheBooks found "most troubling" is that "the details of these credit card transactions were not disclosed to citizens, students, journalists or the elected members of the school board. Instead, the expenditures were aggregated under the name of the credit card company or vendor name (i.e. Amazon), thus, hiding the purpose."

After the local paper headlined the story, school district officials called a press conference announcing that every penny of the $9.6 million in expenditures was appropriate.

"We are a continuous improvement district. ... I want to improve the transparency," said Superintendent Steve Hopkins. "We appreciate the scrutiny ... (that) has caused us to look in the mirror."

Andrzekewski said he's not in a position to challenge the propriety of all the expenditures, but he said they are clearly "extravagant." He suggested that a forensic audit of district spending is in order.

He also said that this kind of disclosure about spending is another wake-up call for citizens to keep an eye on how their local units of government spend public dollars.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.

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