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Audit finds Winnsboro taxpayers paid for employee gifts, parties

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(The Center Square) — The town of Winnsboro is in a legal hot spot after spending nearly $14,000 on outdoor griddles, gift cards, parties and celebrations for town employees, according to an audit report.

Louisiana Legislative Auditor Mike Waguespack issued an investigative audit report on the town’s questionable spending last week that details purchases that “may have violated state law and the state constitution.”

“The Town’s records show there were purchases of gift cards, food, and other party-related items that were provided to employees as gifts,” auditors wrote. “The Town’s policy manual does not address when an employee qualifies for a gift or the maximum value. Mayor (Alice) Wallace told us the Town’s practice is to purchase gifts or gift cards for employee appreciation and food for employee birthdays and retirement.”

Records reviewed by the LLA show Wallace submitted a requisition form to the town clerk in November 2022 to purchase 57 griddles for a total cost of $11,399. The clerk used the town’s debt card to buy the griddles two days later, which Wallace told auditors was in appreciation for unpaid overtime from July to November 2022.

Wallace said she cleared the purchase with the town’s independent auditor. However, that approval came after the purchase was already made and with the requirement the spending gain approval from the board of aldermen, according to the report. The town auditor also recommended town officials obtain an opinion from the city attorney and the LLA.

“The mayor did not obtain Board approval as suggested … nor did she obtain an opinion from the town attorney,” according to the report.

Minutes from a Dec. 28, 2022 board meeting show at least one board member questioned the purchase of the griddles and why officials did not seek the board’s approval.

Auditors noted similar issues with purchasing seven gift cards totaling $737 that were distributed as employee of the month awards between December 2022 and April 2023. Wallace told auditors the board approved the employee of the month program, but a review of board minutes showed the issue was only discussed in November 2022, and not explicitly approved by the board.

Auditors cited an Attorney General’s opinion that while awarding plaques of moderate cost was acceptable to recognize exceptional employees, “the granting of gift certificates and savings bonds constituted prohibited donations under the state’s constitution,” according to the report.

Another $1,836 the town spent on food and supplies for employee birthday and retirement celebrations between Sept. 29, 2021 and May 19, 2023 are also likely illegal, auditors wrote, noting that $496.64 of the total was spent by the prior administration.

“AG Opinion 09-0238 states the AG’s office has historically opined that the use of public funds for the payment of, or reimbursement for, meals or food served in conjunction with parties and other types of celebratory functions is improper under …. the Louisiana Constitution,” the report read.

Winnsboro city attorney Samuel Singer responded to the audit report in a letter to Waguespack on Dec. 14 that alleged LLA auditors included “misstatements of or lack of documents and statements of material facts.”

Singer argued the mayor repeatedly discussed the purchase of the griddles with the town auditor and cited a Dec. 29 email exchange between the town clerk and the auditor. Singer also argued LLA auditors selectively edited an email from the town auditor regarding the gift cards that suggested board approval wasn’t necessary if the spending did not come from the sale of surplus property.

The advice suggested that “Board approval was ‘only’ required if the funds to be used are from the sale of surplus property,” Singer wrote. “In this case, the funds did not come from the sale of surplus property.”

Singer said a town auditor with a different firm in 2021 advised the spending on employee parties was permissible.