The Atlanta Regional Commission engaged in sloppy spending practices, poor financial record keeping and the misuse of purchasing cards, according to the findings of a new state audit.
The powerful planning agency, which helps shape the present and future of communities across the metro Atlanta area, may have improperly spent thousands of taxpayer dollars.
The expenses of ARC Executive Director Doug Hooker, which included thousands of dollars spent on food, alcohol and other personal items, garnered particular scrutiny — and Georgia’s attorney general is now reviewing the audit.
“Collectively, the pattern of questionable purchases, reimbursements, and policy violations raises concern regarding proper stewardship of public funds,” Greg S. Griffin of the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts wrote in his report, which was submitted in December. “In addition, these transactions may have violated the State of Georgia’s purchasing card law … Due to the number of purchasing card policy violations, we have referred the matter to the Office of the Attorney General for further review.”
A spokeswoman for Attorney General Chris Carr confirmed Wednesday that the case had been referred but declined further comment.
The ARC, meanwhile, said it’s already making changes to certain policies and protocols — but denied any intentional wrongdoing on Hooker’s behalf.
“ARC’s Executive Director recognizes the need to be more diligent in maintaining expense records,” Susan Chana, an ARC spokeswoman, said in an emailed statement. “Overall, the items cited in the report regarding his actions represent occasional errors in the administrative handling of expense receipts and do not reflect a pattern of inappropriate or unethical behavior.”
The state did not provide an estimate for the full amount of money it believed may have been mismanaged. But specific examples included in the audit’s final report alone totaled more than $10,000.
The Atlanta Regional Commission is a quasi-governmental agency that describes itself as helping “focus the region’s leadership, attention and resources on critical issues.” Its policies and recommendations on issues like transportation are often heeded by the local governments within its sphere of influence.
Those include the City of Atlanta and Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry and Rockdale counties.
Those local governments pay dues to the ARC and, according to audit documents, the ARC received more than $9 million in state funds during fiscal year 2016.
Not all of it was spent — or monitored — wisely, the audit found. And Hooker, who has been the ARC’s executive director since 2011, was one of the top offenders, the audit found.
The report, part of a series of scheduled probes into each of the state’s 12 regional commissions, found that the ARC did not keep “adequate documentation” of purchases made with employee fuel cards and raised questions about the lack of a formal dollar limit for meals expensed by employees.
The audit listed set per diem amounts of $36, $52 and $64 for three “peer organizations” of the ARC — then provided examples of Hooker eclipsing those amounts on individual meals. The audit found that the ARC also approved multiple employee meal reimbursements without the necessary itemized receipts (or receipts at all) and, in some cases, improperly reimbursed employees for alcohol purchases.
“In calendar year 2016, the executive director submitted 55 non-itemized or illegible meal receipts totaling over $5,600,” the audit report said. “Eight other meals totaling $943 were purchased, and receipts were not submitted.”
The state obtained detailed receipts of some of those meals and found that Hooker “charged alcohol on at least four occasions without paying it back.” Those included alcohol purchased during a $560 dinner at Empire State South in Atlanta and as part of a $106 room service bill in Salt Lake City, according to documents.
Hooker made multiple “personal purchases” on his ARC purchasing card, auditors said — paying back the charge in some cases and not doing so in others. The audit also claimed he did not re-pay $103 he charged for an airline ticket purchased for his wife (though Chana, the ARC spokeswoman, described the latter as “a seat upgrade” charged to the card by Hooker’s former assistant and said the money had been repaid).
Hooker is also accused of improperly spending north of $900 on multiple “in-region” meals that involved only staff members, a violation of ARC policy.
Contacted Wednesday, Hooker referred The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to Chana. But in a brief interview with Channel 2 Action News, he said the audit had been “beneficial.”
“I need to personally do a better job of paying attention to some of my management expenses, administrative expenses, but on the whole there were other administrative and programmatic things that the auditors brought out that we need to pay attention to, to do better,” Hooker said.
‘A road map’
The final audit report from the state of Georgia included parts of an initial response from the ARC.
In that response, the organization disagreed with many of the state’s finding and argued that its allegations against Hooker reflected “a fundamental misunderstanding of what merits further investigation under Georgia’s financial transaction card law.”
But the ARC also said it planned to use the audit as “a road map to help identify some needed policy and procedural updates.”
In documents, the ARC vowed to review purchase-card and reimbursement policies and ensure employees receive ongoing training on those new policies, which would likely include moving to “an online booking and invoicing system.” The organization said it would clear up any “ambiguities and contradictions” in its alcohol and meal reimbursement policies.
“ARC leadership has already decided to use a per diem based approach for expenses,” Chana, the ARC spokeswoman, said Wednesday. “We are currently looking at other organizations to identify a model that would work for us.”
She said the other changes mentioned in the audit report were being pursued “aggressively,” and that the ARC would cooperate fully if contact by the attorney general’s office.
“Following our review of the audit findings, the Executive Director continues to have the full support of the ARC Board,” Kerry Armstrong, the chairman of that board, said in a statement released late Wednesday.
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