Las Vegas Sun

August 20, 2014

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Las Vegas city auditor on the lookout for fraud, waste

Head of auditor’s office has brought quantifiable toughness to oversight

As the recession has deepened and the city’s budget has tightened, Las Vegas officials have emphasized streamlining the bureaucracy, including launching new programs focused on cost savings.

A compelling argument can be made that Las Vegas has for just over a decade had an office dedicated to improving efficiency: the city auditor’s office, headed by Radford Snelding.

The auditor’s office investigates whether city departments abide by policies and procedures and whether programs are run efficiently.

Departments are examined periodically, but auditors can also begin a probe in response to a tip or request from the City Council. Recent topics have ranged from the city’s failure to monitor the work of its contractors to improper handling of city funds.

Snelding’s audits have resulted in corrupt city employees being fired.

But more often, the matters and outcomes are mundane. The recent probe of how the money of inmates at the Las Vegas city jail is handled found that the city’s checkbooks, which reimburse departing inmates who had money on them when starting their sentences, were not being safely stored. A theft could have led to large sums being lost.

The auditor’s office recommended tighter safety measures be put in place, and they were.

That response highlights one measure of the city auditor’s success — how seriously recommendations are taken. In other words, whether the city departments cited for fraud, waste, abuse or failure to follow policies take steps to rectify the problems.

According to their most recent annual follow-up report, released late last month, 96 percent of the auditor’s recommendations — 1,081 out of 1,125 since 1999 — have been addressed.

Of the 44 recommendations not addressed, action on 14 wasn’t yet due.

In 15 cases, city officials asked for extensions to make the changes, and in the remaining 15 cases managers had the time but hadn’t made the fix.

Before Snelding came on board in 2000, he said, city administrators often would wait until the next audit was scheduled, sometimes as long as five years, to address the auditor’s recommendations. There was very little follow-up. No longer.

Snelding credits the City Council and Mayor Oscar Goodman for supporting his office when necessary. Taking a close look at whether fellow employees are doing their jobs doesn’t always make Snelding and his auditors the most popular people in the building.

“They’ve really backed us,” he said.

What’s more, the past two city managers, Doug Selby and now Betsy Fretwell, have responded, he said.

“They know it’s a hot-button issue,” Snelding said. “They know it’s a failure if they don’t make the fixes — and it comes right back to them.”

Snelding said he didn’t know exactly how much the city has saved as a result of his office’s recommended changes — but he soon will. He said the office is finishing up a study that will attempt to answer the question.

An older study found that from 1999 to 2002, auditor’s-office-recommended fixes saved the city just over $3 million.

City Councilwoman Lois Tarkanian, who has served on the five-member Audit Oversight Committee for a year, said Snelding does a tough and objective job. She wasn’t surprised to hear of the high follow-up rates.

“He’s highly respected by the council,” she said. “I respect his people, because they come out and tell you the truth, with no sugar-coated frosting.”

In 2000, when the oversight committee was weighing giving the job to Snelding — a certified public accountant who had since 1991 served as auditor for Shreveport, La. — Goodman made it clear he wanted someone picked who would strengthen the office.

“Perhaps a tougher attitude has to come into City Hall,” Goodman said at the time.

City officials believe they hired the right person.

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