Need: Attention to detail

11/16/2023, 6 p.m.
City Hall is a $3 billion yearly operation with a lot of moving parts and thousands of employees.

City Hall is a $3 billion yearly operation with a lot of moving parts and thousands of employees.

Given that the city operates with taxpayers’ money, there is a need for attention to detail to ensure that the money is well spent and the reason why there is an internal auditor and an inspector general to look into the conduct of city business.

Two recent examples suggest that city officials are often less than attentive.

In the past week, two former employees of the Department of Public Works were sentenced to prison terms after they pleaded guilty to ripping off the department for more than $600,000 over at least a five-year period.

One was Michael Evins, the now retired director of DPW operations.

He created phony companies with his wife, Samaria Evins, who was listed as the owner-operator.

He then directed phony contracts to those companies with the assistance of a DPW technician, Shaun Lindsey, who was empowered to select vendors for smaller contracts. Invoices were then sent to the Department of Finance even though Mrs. Evins’ companies never did any work.

The conspirators got away with it until the inspector general, James Osuna, got a tip, investigated and brought in the federal government to assist in holding the trio accountable for one of the biggest efforts in city history to enrich themselves at taxpayers’ expense.

As it turns out, the scheme worked because neither City Council nor the executives working under Mayor Levar M. Stoney have required each department to have internal controls, essentially practices that ensure that one person is not allowed free rein to do as they please.

The U.S. military is a far larger operation than the city, but the Pentagon has internal controls in every element of the military.

Each section with a budget must submit an internal controls report, signed off on by a ranking officer, to the inspector general’s office so that the spending can be checked and verified as proper.

In Richmond, the three conspirators got away with $600,000, not a lot of money for the city when

spread over five years when more than $10 billion would have sloshed through city coffers.

Still, there does not seem to be a good reason why controls are not in place to prevent another Michael Evins from operating without any attention from his bosses or anyone else.

Another example of a lack of city oversight involves the distribution of grants to largely volunteer community organizations that lost money when the city-created but independent Enrichmond Foundation collapsed in 2022.

The city, with council approval, in July provided $250,000 to The Community Foundation, which set up the five-member Richmond Outdoor and Prosperity Fund Committee (ROPFC) to divvy it up for the groups.

The $250,000 might just be a token. The total money that disappeared is still unknown. The Stoney administration originally estimated the loss that more than 80 groups experienced total around $250,000 to $300,000, but other estimates have suggested the total loss was up to 10 times as much.

A state and federal investigation into the loss was started earlier this year.

However, with no one at the city or on the council paying attention, ROPFC decided it could do what it wanted with the money

Even though the council approved the $250,000 to be used to reimburse the organizations for losses, the ROPFC refused to do so.

Instead, the ROPFC, led by Kelly Chopus, determined without any consultation with the council that it would award the money to applying groups only for new projects, the Free Press has been told.

Last week, the ROPFC reported to a council committee that it had awarded 19 organizations a total of $140,895 or an average of $7,416 apiece, with the remaining $109,105 to be distributed in 2024 in a second round of grants.

To add insult to injury, the ROPFC did not even bother in its report to list the groups that got the money and the purpose for which each grant is to be used.

Just as bothersome, Ms. Chopus and other members decided to cut out the Free Press, which broke the story of the foundation’s collapse. Ms. Chopus and other committee members have not been available for comment, and The Community Foundation also did not respond to a request for comment on the ROPFC’s practices and decisions.

The ROPFC stated in its report to council’s Education and Human Services Committee that Matt Leighty, an ROPFC member, was to issue a press release about the grants. But the Free Press has received no such release.

But this is taxpayer money, not The Community Foundation’s nor the ROPFC’s.

It remains unexplained why such or any group, no matter how reputable, would be allowed to use city money without being required to detail that use in a report that is open to the public.

More attention to detail, please.