CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Three separate audits in recent months have taken the state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management to task for not providing enough oversight of disaster relief dollars from taxpayers as they flow from the federal government to local, recovering communities.
The one that hit home most directly was a state Auditor’s investigation that revealed the City of Richwood had mishandled up to $3.1 million in federal flood relief. That report resulted in multiple embezzlement charges and questioned whether the federal government might consider drawing back the money.
Michael Todorovich, West Virginia’s Emergency Management director, is well aware of the audits and says the agency is working to improve.
“Multiple audits and reviews have indicated some deficiencies within our shop,” Todorovich said. “So we actually take each one of those as a guide to our improvement.”
Todorovich said the agency is trying to improve for the long term.
“We’re trying to fix it so that our processes are good for the future so that we don’t have to come back and revisit these very things again,” he said.
Todorovich and some of his top staff gathered last week for a two-hour interview with West Virginia MetroNews. Others there included Louis Gaunch, a new quality assurance manager, along with Emergency Services spokeswoman Lora Lipscomb, National Guard spokeswoman Holli Nelson and Lawrence Messina, spokesman for Military Affairs and Public Safety.
The meeting was prompted by a story focusing on state government’s annual Single Audit, which had specified 18 ways Emergency Services fell short on handling federal disaster relief money last fiscal year.
The 155-page audit found that the state hasn’t succeeded in reimbursing local governments in timely fashion, did not close out grants by expiration dates, did not adequately monitor subrecipients like local governments, did not provide its own required documentation and, in some cases, did not contribute enough state share to federal grants that required a match.
Todorovich and Gaunch said that in recent months the agency has strived toward improvement.
They hope for better results because of four main factors:
- Todorovich himself. The director didn’t play this up, but he represents a change. Jimmy Gianato, who had that job for about a decade was bumped aside late last year and then announced his retirement a few weeks ago. Todorovich was a National Guard member for 40 years and was full time there for 20.
- Emergency Services has more closely aligned with the National Guard. That has resulted not only in cooperation, but also has allowed hiring to take place under military guidelines rather than under state personnel rules, resulting in Todorovich handpicking people like Gaunch.
- The agency is bringing aboard additional personnel to improve oversight. One of those initiatives will be an internal review team meant to oversee whether grants are being used properly. The internal review is set to include a certified public accountant, a quality assurance manager (Gaunch), a chief monitor and three monitoring coordinators who report to the director.
- And the agency is taking a closer look at some of its processes. Broadly stated, the agency is making sure there’s more overlap of duties and aiming to make more of its documentation available digitally.
The status of all of that is supposed to be reflected in regular reports to Todorovich. He wants to know if there are issues way before any audit would say so.
Todorovich acknowledges that these steps are just recently under way, and he says the intended progress would not have been reflected in the flaws underscored by the Single Audit.
A new chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Flooding said he is impressed so far by the changes at Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
Dean Jeffries, R-Kanawha, suggested Todorovich has communicated well so far with constituents who are recovering from disaster. Jeffries also feels relatively confident in the staffing changes and other plans.
But he would like to hear more.
“It’s probably too early to tell,” Jeffries said in a telephone interview. “I would like to see that they can show the ball is moving, that they are working toward what they told us they were going to do the last time we met.”
Two state senators, Glenn Jeffries and Stephen Baldwin, have said they would like to hear more about the Emergency Services plans to get better.
The two Democrats wrote a letter to legislative leaders asking for a closer look by the Joint Committee on Flooding.
“At our last meeting in December, we received an update from DHSEM after a major leadership shakeup,” they wrote. “Many of our communities continue to languish with grant programs that aren’t showing any results.”
They proposed bringing Todorovich back to address the committee, referring to him by the title he earned during 40 years with the National Guard.
“Col. Todorovich provided financial statements showing how much money they had for each program and promised to begin pushing it out quickly as soon as his new financial staff got to work. (Results we have yet to see on the ground.)”
Some changes at Emergency Management have been handled relatively quickly.
One of the findings in the Single Audit — that the agency didn’t have information on hand about subrecipient eligibility — came about because the agency employee who should have that was deployed overseas, Todorovich and his group said.
So the agency is making sure there’s more overlap of people who have access to information. That also means making sure information is available digitally.
More efforts will take time.
“It is smoothing out literally on a daily basis,” Todorovich said.
Gaunch, who is in charge of quality assurance, started in January.
He knew Todorovich from their involvement in University of Charleston’s School of Business and Leadership. He had been an insurance agency owner with his father, Ed Gaunch, a former Senator and now West Virginia’s Commerce secretary.
Louis Gaunch believes the next audit of Emergency Management will show improvement.
“It’s going to be somewhat better,” he said, “because most of these changes didn’t happen until October or even January of this year. Two years from now it’s going to be way, way, way, markedly better.”
What’s important, Todorovich said, is making sure West Virginia provides better oversight the next time communities are recovering from disaster.
“We need to train people as if the next flood is happening, and that starts today,” Todorovich said