13 agencies want to keep parts of their budgets secret

02/07/2012 12:00 AM

02/07/2012 1:33 PM

Thirteen state agencies are trying to keep portions of their budgets secret because, they say, releasing the information could compromise criminal investigations or invade people’s privacy.

No one can review money in exempted accounts other than officials at the affected agency and the state’s auditor, according to Les Boles, director of the Office of State Budget.

That makes state Treasurer Curtis Loftis, a Republican, uneasy. So much so that he has delayed state approval of allowing the agencies to keep the accounts secret.

“It is just bad policy to have some Bernie Madoff situation where nobody looks over your shoulder,” said Loftis, referring to the mastermind behind the largest Ponzi scheme in U.S. history.

A state budget rule requires agencies to disclose records of any bank account that is outside of the state’s normal accounting system, exempting only state universities. However, the rule allows agencies to apply to the state Budget and Control Board for an exemption if “release of the information would be detrimental to the state or agency.” The budget board discusses the exemption requests in a closed-to-the-public meeting but votes on them in public.

Thirteen state agencies have requested exemptions for 65 accounts. The requests include exemptions routinely granted to the State Law Enforcement Division and the attorney general’s office for accounts dealing with undercover officers and confidential informants. But they also include requests from the departments of Motor Vehicles, Consumer Affairs and the governor’s office.

Loftis said he understands the need for secrecy — especially with law enforcement and mental health agencies. But someone from the outside needs to review those accounts, even if they have to sign confidentiality agreements, he said. “We have secrets in this office. But I don’t want anybody in state government to say nobody knows where I’m spending my money,” Loftis said.

The governor’s office wants to exempt two funds, both dealing with the Continuum of Care, an agency that provides services to emotionally disturbed children. One fund passes out federal Social Security disability insurance payments to children and their families; another accepts donations for children in the program.

Consumer Affairs has a “confidential fund” that pays for operations to enforce the state’s consumer-protection laws regarding pawn shops, mortgage brokers and “persons who dispense contact lenses without the appropriate credentials,” according to agency administrator Carri Grube Lybarker. The agency uses the money for things like buying items from a pawn shop it is investigating.

State law requires the department to keep secret the names of the businesses it is looking at until an investigation is completed. Lybarker said releasing transactions could violate that law. But she said the agency would be willing to discuss letting the treasurer or someone else in state government review the fund.

SLED Chief Mark Keel said his agency’s account deals with “as sensitive information as anything that we do.” But he said he would be willing to work with the state treasurer on ways to monitor the account.

“How we could assure confidentiality at the same time, having somebody review those accounts, I don’t know how we get there,” he said. “It would take some thought on our part.”

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