Local Politics

Audit: Nonprofit's Computers Used for Campaigning

Posted February 18, 2008 10:50 a.m. EST
Updated February 18, 2008 6:47 p.m. EST

— A state lawmaker used computers in a nonprofit foundation she heads to produce materials for her re-election campaign, according to a state audit released Monday.

The critical audit marked the latest difficulty for state Rep. Mary McAllister, D-Cumberland, who was fined last year for depositing campaign contributions into her personal account and for repaying herself for a nonexistent campaign loan.

McAllister is executive director of Operation Sickle Cell, which promotes awareness of sickle cell anemia statewide and operates an AIDS program in Cumberland County.

Auditors examined the hard drives of 12 computers from the nonprofit's office and found re-election letters to voters, scripts for campaign advertisements and files related to McAllister's work in the General Assembly. The audit noted that using the computers for political purposes violated the group's nonprofit status and broke state law because state grants were used to purchase the equipment.

The organization disputed the audit's findings, noting that an Operation Sickle Cell employee served as her campaign treasurer in 2006 and did work for the campaign outside of business hours. She also noted that the political records the employee put together amounted to 1 percent of the total files on the computers.

The audit was prompted last June by questions over spending and McAllister's $115,000 salary at Operation Sickle Cell. Investigators determined her salary was comparable to those of other nonprofit executives with similar experience, and they found "minor costs" that were incurred because of inadequate financial controls.

"(Operation) Sickle Cell does a very good job of providing services that the grant funds pay for," said Janet Hayes, who oversaw the state audit.

In a statement released Monday by attorney Jonathan Charleston, McAllister called the audit "a prolonged political witch hunt" and said the State Auditor's Office "abused its discretion" in handling the audit.

"The unjustified conduct of (the State Auditor's Office) gives credence to the argument that the state auditor should be appointed and not elected to avoid political influence in connection with state audits such as what occurred in this instance," McAllister said in the statement.

"When you have politics in the midst of it, it generally spills over into what the conduct of the auditor is," Charleston said.

Operation Sickle Cell managers also were criticized in the audit as trying to obstruct investigators attempts to review the nonprofit's records. The State Auditor's Office had to enlist the support of a Superior Court judge to enforce subpoenas to access the computer hard drives before the nonprofit agreed to turn the records over for inspection, according to the audit report.

“I believe that Operation Sickle Cell can serve its clients best by adopting a posture of openness and transparency,” State Auditor Leslie Merritt said in a statement. “Creating an atmosphere of defensiveness will only hinder their work in the community and create greater friction when we follow up on our recommendations in the coming months."

The organization responded to the criticism by maintaining Operation Sickle Cell had the right to question the scope of the audit and by noting the computers contained personal medical information of clients and that removing the computers from the nonprofit's offices adversely affected its operations.