Minnesota state agency accused of violating the law 200 times

Records show violations happened in awarding $52 million in contracts.

Posted: Nov 6, 2019 5:00 PM

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Public records show the Minnesota Department of Human Services violated state law more than 200 times over the past year as it awarded $52 million in contracts and grant commitments without proper documentation, the Star Tribune reported Wednesday.

The records obtained by the newspaper show that employees sometimes allowed vendors and grantees to perform work or services without finalized and signed contracts, while in other cases employees bought products such as software without the required permission.

Department officials said the agency has safeguards in place that prevent spending in such situations. But legislators said the violations put the agency at risk for misusing taxpayer dollars.

The newspaper reported that the records, taken together, suggest a pattern of financial mismanagement that goes well beyond some high-profile cases that have already been reported. Those cases include $29 million in overpayments to two American Indian tribes for opioid treatment programs.

"We shouldn't have 200 of these (violations) sitting here at this point in the year," Deputy Human Services Commissioner Chuck Johnson said. "We have a lot of room for improvement and a lot of work to do in order to live up to our trustworthy reputation."

Senate Republican leaders reacted by calling a Finance Committee hearing for next Wednesday to examine contracting and spending practices at the department and other agencies.

They noted that the forms state employees must use to report the kind of improper payments cited in the report specifically say violations are grounds for firing. Sen. Julie Rosen, of Vernon Center, who chairs the Finance Committee, said they'll ask the Department of Administration to provide the same forms filed by employees at all state agencies and review the request at the hearing.

In the House, GOP Rep. Nick Zerwas, of Elk River, said he appreciated new Commissioner Joni Harpstead's efforts to fix the problems in her agency but, "at some point we must determine whether there are consequences for violating the laws we have in place. If the agency is unwilling to hold employees accountable, then it may be time for law enforcement to step in."

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