Lawmakers seek answers amid correction audit fallout

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee lawmakers grilled the state’s correction agency for answers on Tuesday after a scathing audit found the department failed on many levels to ensure the safety of inmates and the public.

The 200-page report — prepared by the Tennessee comptroller’s office — listed 18 negative findings, among them that the correction agency failed to compile accurate data on inmate deaths, mishandled sexual abuse and harassment cases and badly handled high employee turnover.

The issue that particularly rankled lawmakers was the correction agency’s failure to collect the full $2.1 million owed by state vendors who had failed to comply with certain conditions of their contracts. The agency issued unauthorized credit to the providers for other services, meaning they eventually only collected $92,020.

The report warned that the decision to use a nonapproved credit system has exposed the state to possible litigation and financial consequences.

Members of a legislative panel showed signs of visible agitation when the department said it was still researching the issue.

“This is unbelievable,” said Republican state Sen. Steve Dickerson of Hendersonville. “This is egregious.”

The department has known about the findings since November, but the audit wasn’t released publicly until this month.

Dickerson questioned why the agency still had no clear answer on how to collect the $2 million.

“That’s something we’re looking into,” said Debbie Inglis, deputy commissioner and general counsel for the agency.

“Valuable services were provided by this vendor that were not covered under a contract, so there is a possibility under the law for someone in that position to recover reasonable value for those services,” she added.

Inglis said it would take several more weeks before the agency would have a better answer surrounding the $2 million because she still needed to meet with the attorney general’s office.

“I’m very concerned about the fact that we’ve left $2 million on the table,” said Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Yager, a Republican from Kingston. “This is money we could put back in corrections.”

Correction Commissioner Tony Parker reiterated his prior stance that his agency did not disagree with the comptroller’s finding, but said that at the time, the department believed it had authority to tweak how the state collected noncompliance assessments.

“These credits were given in good faith,” Parker said. “I’m not an attorney but I am responsible for the department. I made the decision on what I felt was the best interest of the department and the state.”

Parker told a separate legislative panel last week that the department would create an inspector general position that would answer to him, work directly with the state’s executive auditor and the comptroller’s office to shore up internal processes and controls, and assume oversight of the administration of contracts.

Following Sen. Todd Gardenhire, a Republican from Chattanooga, recommended sending the contracts in question to the Legislature’s Fiscal Review panel, which is in charge of examining noncompetitive contracts for goods and services.

The move was unanimously adopted by the panel.

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