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A shortage of staff in rural areas is no excuse for fraud

JOHNSTON – Special investigation by the Iowa Auditor’s Office in 2023 uncovered more than $756,000 in improper or undocumented expenditures or other forms of financial mismanagement by local government agencies.

That figure does not include the hundreds of thousands of misused taxpayer dollars revealed by regular, periodic audits conducted by the agency.

The problem is especially pronounced in small towns, where there are insufficient staff and often insufficient oversight of public spending.

It’s a problem that Iowa Auditor Rob Sand acknowledges, but also says it shouldn’t excuse the budgetary irresponsibility of governments in small communities.

Sand discussed issues with small town government oversight and other topics while appearing on this weekend’s episode of “Iowa Press” on Iowa PBS.

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Iowa Auditor Rob Sand discusses several topics during the taping for his appearance on Iowa PBS’ “Iowa Press” at Iowa PBS Studios in Johnston on Friday.


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“It’s a problem. There’s no doubt about it,” Sand said. “Sometimes we have to acknowledge to some extent that it can be difficult to find staff who have the training to do this kind of work in rural areas. … It Bottom line is it’s harder in rural Iowa. But we can’t really let that be an excuse for everything.”

Sand said local governments need to be careful when hiring — he noted that an individual in Iowa who mismanaged local finances was previously charged with similar crimes — and that government agencies in small communities need to police each other.

For example, Sand pointed to a 2014 investigation that found a former secretary took more than $279,000 from the Mahaska County Soil and Water Conservation District. The same person was also in charge of Poweshiek County financial accounts, but did not take money from those accounts because, Sand said, a Poweshiek County supervisor would request bank statements every month.

“You want to make sure that, as I like to say, you don’t tempt others,” Sand said. “Ask for bank details. Check them out every month. Make sure the person managing the money knows that you are reviewing bank information every month. Because that way, no matter what situation they find themselves in, they can avoid the temptation to abuse the taxpayer money they have access to.”

Sand said he would like the Iowa Legislature to increase penalties for fraudulent use of taxpayer funds, including by creating a mandatory prison sentence for “grand theft” of taxpayer funds.

Sand said such a punishment could be effective because, unlike crimes of violence or passion, an individual can consider the heightened consequences before committing an illegal act.

“If you have a position of trust and power over a large amount of taxpayer money and you abuse it over a period of time, you absolutely should receive a mandatory prison sentence,” Sand said.

“Iowa Press” can be viewed Sundays at noon on Iowa PBS and anytime online at iowapbs.org.