After a state audit criticized the record-keeping practices of a cash fund for paying Missouri executioners, the Department of Corrections reacted by changing its policies to make them more lax.
The fund has been plagued by consistent documentation problems, from before and after the audit’s release, according to a review of the payments by BuzzFeed News.
As BuzzFeed News reported in January, Missouri has handed out hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash to its executioners. The state uses cash payments to limit the paper trail, in an effort to keep the identities of the executioners hidden.
A 2015 state audit looking at some of the disbursements from the fund over an 11-month period found that the fund was mismanaged, run in violation of Department of Corrections policy.
The Department of Corrections pledged to do better, and just weeks ago its director told a legislative committee that it had fixed the problem.
However, a BuzzFeed News examination of years of payments to executioners found record-keeping and oversight problems were pervasive — and were not fixed in the wake of the audit. The department instead changed its policy, allowing for thousands of dollars in cash to change hands without a witness present — a requirement that had been put in place as a way to avoid fraudulent payments. In addition, the head of the department misled a state lawmaker when he was asked about documentation problems with the fund.
BuzzFeed News reviewed 20 cash payments that occurred after the audit’s release. Of those, only nine receipts followed the audit’s recommendations. The others, payments of $36,115.52 in total, either were blank, had no witness sign off on the payment, or had a witness sign the receipt — but on a different date than the payment occurred.
The findings of the review look more like an attempt to avoid or ignore the problems highlighted by the 2015 audit than an effort to fix the problems.
The 2015 audit found the department had “not consistently complied with established procedures to ensure payments to execution team members are properly authorized, controlled, and documented.”
“The DOC did not record the amount of the cash payments on receipt forms signed by execution team members and did not always require the exchange of the cash payments to be acknowledged by a witness signature, as required by DOC procedures,” the audit found.
The Missouri Auditor’s Office told the DOC that “to comply with established procedures,” the payments should be “supported by the signature of a witness who verified the delivery of the cash payment.”
However, the department did the exact opposite. Instead, the head of the department, George Lombardi, changed the policy, allowing for cash payments to be handed out to the execution drug supplier without a witness to attest to it.
Since then, a high-ranking corrections official has delivered multiple payments of $7,178.88 to an unknown execution drug supplier without a witness to sign off on the payment. Instead, on a later day, a witness signs off that the department received the drugs.
“Since the February 2015 audit, all cash payment receipts to execution team members have been signed by a department employee in order to document the actual receipt of goods or services, which is in compliance with the department’s policy and procedure,” a corrections spokesperson wrote in a statement.
“The copies of the receipts that you received… were the bottom copy of a three-page carbon copy form that can be difficult to distinguish signatures, especially if the signee lightly signs and dates the form,” the spokesperson wrote.
Although the department’s practices comply with its new internal policy, it does not comply with auditor’s recommendation.
The auditor’s office told BuzzFeed News in a statement that “it is the expectation of this office that audit recommendations are implemented.”
The head of the department, George Lombardi, did not disclose the change to a legislative committee when he was grilled about the audit.
At a hearing, he said his department enacted changes following the audit’s criticisms, and immediately began having witnesses attest that the cash went to the correct recipient.
“The auditor was correct in calling us on [not having witnesses sign off on cash payments], and we changed it immediately,” Lombardi said, when asked by a state lawmaker.
“So now, when these cash payments occur, somebody is there to witness that exchange of cash?” Rep. Jeremy LaFaver asked.
“Correct,” Lombardi said.
However, that answer is misleading. If there is a witness there to see the cash change hands, it is not reflected on many of the receipts. And Lombardi’s policy change made it so that no witness is required.
The department declined to comment on Lombardi’s testimony. Gov. Jay Nixon’s office, who appointed Lombardi, did not respond to a request for comment.
Before the policy change, the department required someone witness all of the cash payments, and sign off that they occurred. The limited audit showed this was not always followed, and a more thorough review by BuzzFeed News shows the problems have existed since the original policy was adopted in 2008.
Of 78 receipts showing $94,000 in disbursements from June 2008 to August 2013, 30 had some sort of problem. Some had no amount listed. Others had no witness sign off on the payment. Three receipts, for $5,000 in total, were entirely blank.