Audit reveals money waste and policy failures in rehab agency

Published: Thursday, Sept. 12 2013 9:00 a.m. MDT

A new state audit says the Utah Division of Rehabilitation Services “lacks program oversight,” resulting in questionable spending on services and equipment and failing to verify applicants’ identities.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Representatives of the Utah Division of Rehabilitation Services vowed to lawmakers Thursday to strengthen policies and improve internal controls following an audit that pointed out questionable spending and verification practices.

The performance review by Utah State Auditor John Dougall's office said the division lacked program oversight in "four high-risk areas."

The division, which reports to the State Board of Education, facilitates vocational rehabilitation services for people with disabilities to help them gain or retain employment with the goal of self-sufficiency. The review was said to be the first performance audit of the division in its 92-year history.

"These findings are particularly concerning because the division expends millions of state and federal dollars annually without adequate controls to prevent and detect wasteful spending. Improved controls would allow the (Division of Rehabilitation Services) to further its mission by limiting waste that could be used to assist other citizens who need assistance," a news release from Dougall's office said.

Auditors presented their findings to the Utah Legislature’s Social Services Appropriations Subcommittee on Thursday morning.

The 62-page document says division employees violated or failed to follow policies when deciding whether to pay to equip automobiles with wheelchair lifts, ramps, hand controls and other assistive devices, or place elevators in residences.

In several instances, the division did not consider alternatives to paying for vehicle modifications such as having family, friends, co-workers provide transportation, using public transportation or hiring private transportation, the audit states.

Russell Thelin, the newly appointed executive director of the Office of Rehabilitative Services, told lawmakers the division works extensively with the Utah Transit Authority to ensure its clients have access to public transportation or specialized services such its Flextrans Paratransit Service.

However, there may have been deficiencies in documenting various transportation considerations in client files, Thelin said.

"That's an issue we need to work on," he said.

In other cases, division employees failed to follow policy. For instance, one counselor did not document “noteworthy donations raised to help a client,” the audit says.

In that case, a woman who had been involved in an accident resulting in a significant disability sought financial assistance from the division for modifications to her house and vehicle.

Her case file “documents community efforts to raise funds — allegedly more than $50,000 — to increase the client’s accessibility,” the audit states.

A counselor repeatedly asked the couple to disclose the amount of money raised through private fundraising efforts, but they refused, auditors wrote. Still, the division contributed $39,000 to modify a vehicle and install an elevator in their home.

Auditors also questioned the expenditure of $63,000 to modify the vehicle of a division employee. The employee’s work duties required him to travel to various outreach locations “even though his disability prevented him from driving without accommodations.”

Auditors questioned why the employee was not assigned to a position with limited travel, thereby eliminating the need for vehicle modifications.

“Based on his performance appraisals in his personnel file, it is unlikely that the division would have terminated his employment instead of reassigning him to a position that did not require travel,” the audit says.

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