Louisiana prison system’s COVID-19 reimbursements are questionable, audit says

Prison system says it abided by all rules and expenses are legitimate

By: - July 13, 2021 7:43 am
Entrance to Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola

Photo by Jarvis DeBerry

Auto repairs. Horse feed. Chair reupholstery. 

Those are some of the services the Department of Public Safety and Corrections had reimbursed through the Coronavirus Relief Fund set up to deal with the public health crisis. The Louisiana Legislative Auditor questioned whether the state should have used federal pandemic relief funding to pay for them in a report released earlier this month. 

The auditor’s office — led by Mike Waguespack — reviewed a sample of expenses reimbursed by the state’s Coronavirus Relief Fund to Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola), Elayn Hunt Correctional Center and the state’s probation and parole program. The auditor’s office concluded almost all of the sample expenses it reviewed from these entities — 99 percent of them — “did not have documentation to support that the expenditure was incurred due to [a] public health emergency.” 

The questionable expenses total $1.6 million, according to the auditor’s report. They include the purchase of hepatitis C medication, upkeep for weed eaters, lawn mowers and tractors as well as shredders. The auditor is looking at COVID-19 federal funding reimbursements across the state government during the 2019-2020 budget cycle. 

The auditor’s office didn’t think the sample of expenditures it reviewed from the prison system matched the requirements laid out by the federal government for the use of the COVID-19 relief funding that reimbursed it. But the audit staff also complained that it couldn’t verify whether the expenses were legitimate because no explanation for why they matched the guidelines for COVID-19 relief funding was provided. 

The auditor also said about $92,000 of the prison system expenses it reviewed occurred before March 1, 2020 — the date when the federal government agreed to start covering COVID-19 expenditures. 

The Department of Public Safety and Corrections disagreed with the auditor’s findings. In a letter sent to the auditor last month, the prison system said even if some of its COVID-19 relief expenses were found to be ineligible, it still had $29.5 million worth of expenses that hadn’t been reimbursed that could be used to claim the funding.

The prison system also argued that the federal government had given states “broad discretion” to distribute COVID-19 relief funding and Louisiana’s Division of Administration had already signed off on the reimbursements. Gov. John Bel Edwards oversees both the Department of Public Safety and Corrections as well as the Division of Administration.

“It was the policy of DOA to approve funds for transfer only after a complete review of the application and supporting documentation,” wrote Thomas Bickham, the undersecretary for the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, to the auditor.

In a separate audit, the Office of Juvenile Justice — which is under the Department of Public Safety and Corrections — was also questioned over its use of the state Coronavirus Relief Fund.

The auditor’s office found that the state paid out $363,000 to residential facilities housing minors for the state from the Coronavirus Relief Fund even those facilities also received funding from another pot of federal money for foster care. Another $247,000 paid out for staff was also reimbursed by both the Coronavirus Relief Fund and the federal foster care funding. One facility was also paid $8,400 out of the Coronavirus Relief Fund for a bill incurred in January 2020 — before the federal government agreed to cover COVID-19 expenses.

In a letter to the auditor, Gearry Williams — with the Office of Juvenile Justice — said the agency had already fixed the issue. It had submitted a new round of eligible expenses to cover money it received from the Coronavirus Relief Fund. 

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press.