Thursday, May 19, 2011

When settlement groups go astray

Several months back, there was a huge storm when PMS cut off funding for Hamilton based SISO, the Settlement and Integration Services Organization effectively forcing it to close down.   At first many felt it was a vendetta that Team Harper had against groups who opposed the Cons' specific immigration policies.   But over the last few months a much darker picture has emerged.   Documents obtained through a FOIA request by the Hamilton Spectator show that about $1.4 million in "improper or invalid expenses" were charged to the feds.

Now the organization's officials claim that's because the Immigration Department and the government's auditor (not to be confused with the Auditor General who works for Parliament, an important distinction) have different ways of calculating what expenses should accrue and when.   To that I say bogus.   Two reasons:  First, my training in accounting showed me that the correct method of tracking transactions is accrual.  It is illegal to expense on a "when cash changes" basis unless you're a farmer or fisherman (and most in those industries use accrual anyway).   Second, there are very clear rules within accural accounting of what exactly can be expended or charged, when and how much.   You can't for example claim mugs with your corporate logo as office furniture -- you have to put it in the correct sub-ledger (kitchen supplies, for instance) or it will be disallowed.   Even if the claim is legal, you must credit or debit it at the time of the transaction, not when cash or the equivalent changes hands (what accrual means).

Some of the examples cited in the audits including putting two serial numbers on the same cheque, multiple formats for pay stubs, no way to determine how much each employee got paid and if the money was even deposited at all (or if the correcting withholding income and social security taxes were withheld), and invoices that were mimeographed so poorly that it was impossible to determine who the payee or payer was.

This is truly sad, because many here saw SISO as one of the most innovative and successful non-religious integrating organizations of its type in all of Canada.   It helped about 8000 "regular" immigrants and 400 refugees each and every year.   If something nefarious was going on (and I'm not suggesting necessarily that there were -- the Mounties are investigating that possibility though and the allegations in the article are quite serious), none of us were the wiser.

Now many of the services they used to provide have been dispersed to a number of groups, including the local Y and local branches of faith-based groups.   And this is taxpayer's money, yours and mine.   How an agency of this nature can go from $6 million in assets (including $1 million liquid) and a profit of $2 million, to owing $600,000 in just one year, is bizarre -- especially in 2010, a year when the economy was actually getting back on track for many.

Where were the Board of Directors?   Why wasn't its accountant asking more questions?

We're not talking about your average organization folks.   Settlement services is a serious business because we need immigrants to power and grow our economy, just as my parents and uncles and aunts did and so many more have over the decades.   We need accountability more than ever.   I would suggest that notwithstanding the AG having enough on her plate already (she audits the feds, Schedule III Crown Corps and the three territories) that she should have powers to investigate groups that use taxpayers' money and have the ability to report improprities or allegations thereof to Parliament and to the Mounties.

It would have helped, though, if Team Harper had released the internal audit at the same time they pulled the funding ... it would have answered a lot of questions sooner and would have made the union organizing vote at the agency moot which it was anyway when the agency made its bankruptcy filing.   A FOIA request should be unnecessary, this is public information that we have a right to know about.

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