Lack of "consistent leadership" at the District government agency in charge of federal nutrition and other key grant programs resulted in the violation of numerous city regulations and the misuse of hundreds of thousands of dollars over several years, according to a new report by the D.C. auditor.
The report reviewed operations in the D.C. State Education Office (SEO) from 2002 through May 5, 2004. It found sloppy management that allowed city workers to be paid for work they were not supposed to do and take trips they did not need to take, and resulted in heavy turnover in key positions that undermined programs intended to help the city's residents.
"This report confirms all of the criticisms that were being leveled both by the [City] Council and by nutrition activists against the SEO," said D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), a member of the Education Committee who had requested the audit after repeated efforts to publicize problems at the education office. "It confirms what the SEO denied month after month."
The report, prepared by the office of Auditor Deborah K. Nichols, made a series of recommendations for new accountability systems to ensure that money and personnel are properly used.
The report mentions nobody by name, but is critical of the office's management. The head of the education office during the period of the audit's scope was C. Vannessa Spinner, who submitted her resignation on June 1 after a controversial tenure during which the U.S. Agriculture Department repeatedly found violations of federal regulations in the city's federally funded nutrition programs.
The audit, which reviewed activities in the division that runs these programs, called the Special Nutrition and Commodities Distribution Program, or SNAC, found similar problems. For example, it said:
* Extensive personnel turnover destabilized federal nutrition programs, making it difficult to maintain and expand the effort to feed the city's hungry. For example, the division had four directors during the 21/2-year audit period.
* Personnel were used improperly. Two key positions, at a total cost of $160,000, were filled with people who were supposed to work exclusively for the nutrition programs but did other work instead.
"Lack of a stable work force and the lack of continuity in program leadership, development and execution affected the effective and efficient performance of the mission and responsibilities of the SNAC program," the audit said.
The audit is a draft, though people familiar with the report said there would be no changes in the key findings in the final version.
Spinner declined to comment on the report. Deborah Gist, her successor as head of the education office, also declined to comment, as did the mayor's office. Staff members inside the office have said that upon taking her new post, Gist began a review of problems and started some reforms.
Spinner became head of the office shortly after it was created in 2000 to take over city education functions that are normally conducted by states, including ensuring an accurate count of public school students each year. The agency is also charged with operating grant programs such as D.C. TAG (tuition assistance grants), which pays college tuition for eligible city residents.
During her tenure, the D.C. auditor, as well as the D.C. inspector general and the U.S. attorney, investigated improper employee activity in the agency, and several employees were forced to leave.
Spinner now is working at the University of the District of Columbia, as special assistant to the provost for adult literacy initiatives and D.C. schools. Her annual salary is $105,000, which comes from $2 million that was transferred from the education office by Mayor Anthony A. Williams's office to UDC to cover the adult literacy program.
Before becoming head of the education office, Spinner was executive director of the city's Child and Youth Investment Trust. She left amid criticism of the way she managed the trust's money.
Among the audit's other findings:
* The education office failed to comply with the terms and conditions of the city government's temporary staffing contract with a company called Choice Inc. For example, the education office paid Choice more than $921,800 for the services of approximately 70 individuals who worked in the office at various times during the audit period. The auditor examined a sample of 142 Choice invoices paid by the education office and "in all instances, the Auditor found that the labor categories and hourly rates billed on the invoices did not comply with the labor categories and hourly rates stipulated" in the contract.
* Though the contract did not provide for the purchase of payroll processing services from Choice or the payment of related processing and overhead costs, the auditor found that more than $150,000 was paid to Choice in markup costs during the audit period.
* More than $20,000 in travel reimbursements were made in violation of rules -- including $17,000 made without supporting original receipts. About $25,000 in travel expenses were "inappropriately" charged to a District government purchase card.
* Approximately $88,000 was used to send office staff workers on four retreats and one workshop without adequate justification.
* More than $27,000 in travel and travel-related costs were improperly charged by management of the education office to various programs under their purview.
* More than $4,500 was used to pay the tuition for a technology seminar for an employee in another city office for reasons that could not be explained.
* More than $1,000 was used to lodge five office administrators at a Richmond hotel, even though their meeting was scheduled from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and they could have made it home in a day.