Taxpayer dollars for domestic violence hotline squandered

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Austin — Federal funds for the Austin-based National Domestic Violence Hotline were squandered on unauthorized contractors, personnel charges and other costs, according to an audit by the inspector general with the U.S. Department of Justice.

The review contends the group, a federal non-profit umbrella group created by the Texas Council on Family Violence, misspent over $1 million in funds that came to the organization through four grants totaling $2.875 million between 2012 and 2015.

“[The hotline] is required to adhere to the conditions of the awards, which include properly accounting for award funds; using grant funds for allowable purposes; and accurately reporting on the use of grant funds,” the report states. …”As stated in this report, we found that [the hotline] charged unallowable and unsupported costs to the awards totaling $1,064,672.”

The inspector general report concludes that the hotline has not been a responsible steward of grant funds.

Personnel costs related to the grants were not backed up with timesheets or any other documentation, and employee timesheets were not consistent with the dates of payments made, according to the audit.

In one case, a contractor was paid $110 an hour, 35 percent more than the $81.25 hourly rate allowable under the grant money. The review found $100,029 in unsupported contractor fees.

In its response, the hotline disputed most of the audit’s allegations. It blamed the personnel cost finding on a different approach to accounting, in which payments lagged two weeks behind during the period of review in October.

On the unsupported contractor fees, the hotline stated that it was searching for “some of the contractor invoices,” but “all of the work listed was performed.” In some cases, the hotline insisted that the inspector general investigators overlooked detailed breakdowns of contractor duties.

“While none of the awards were used improperly, it is worth noting that the questioned transactions are all from a time period in which [the hotline] had a different CEO and CFO,” the hotline wrote in its response to the audit. ”Many of the personnel involved with these agreements have left the organization or have changed position within the organization.”

The group is on its third chief financial officer since February 2014 and second CEO since April 2014. The audited awards date back to September 2012.  The hotline is currently looking for an accountant/payroll specialist.

The hotline declined an interview request. In an emailed statement to Texas Monitor, the group said, “we seek to run an exceptional nonprofit that provides support to those dealing with issues of domestic violence. We constantly seek ways to improve, and this 2015 report from the Office of the Inspector General suggested, for example, we can be clearer in how we report payroll distributions to staff. Notably, the report, stemming from a routine audit, did not suggest any misuse of funds.”

Board member Kelly White, who also declined an interview request, said in an email that “staff and board leadership…have kept board members apprised about the audit, the current findings, and the refutation of a significant number of the results. … As a board of directors, we continue to be diligent with our fiduciary and legal response while ensuring the Hotline continues with its lifesaving work.”

The hotline in June announced it had moved to new offices, described as “state of the art.” The location in South Austin includes a gym and locker room.

Vice President Joe Biden visited the hotline’s offices in 2013 and lamented a dip in annual federal funding for the group, from $3.2 million to $2.9 million.

“Here we are again, we’re short on funds,” Biden said at the time.

The hotline was created in 1996 with a $1 million federal grant obtained by the Texas Council on Family Violence, a statewide non-profit established in 1978.

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