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Comptroller warns of loose controls in clerk's office

The Buffalo city office that collects hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees for birth certificates, dog licenses and other documents needs tighter controls, Buffalo's fiscal watchdog says.

Comptroller Andrew A. SanFilippo said that while a new audit found no evidence of wrongdoing, several weak controls present "the opportunity for the misappropriation of funds."

SanFilippo gave high marks to most operations in the city clerk's office, crediting administrators who oversee tasks that range from issuing marriage licenses to managing all city records.

But auditors raised concerns about the process used to reconcile some deposits. They said the problems ranged from receipts not being balanced on a timely basis to allowing the same person who tallies daily receipts to perform monthly revenue reviews.

"We didn't uncover any theft or fraud, but the potential could be there without strengthening operations up there," SanFilippo said.

City Clerk Gerald Chwalinski filed a written response to the audit indicating that one change will include reassigning some duties so that staffers involved in monitoring daily revenue won't be involved in monthly reconciliations.

The audit raised a number of issues, ranging from problems caused by a malfunctioning cash register on a specific day, to certain forms and payroll records that were incomplete. Other procedures require a better system of checks and balances, SanFilippo said, including assigning a staffer who doesn't track daily revenue to perform monthly reviews.

"Otherwise, it could be a formula for fraud," SanFilippo warned. "You could have the whole Dave May thing happening all over again."

He was referring to an incident dating back more than 12 years involving a city clerk employee who pleaded guilty to stealing more than $200,000 over a prolonged period. May headed the Division of Vital Statistics when the thefts occurred.

Chwalinski said it's unfair to draw any parallel between the May case and current operations, insisting that strong controls are already in place.

"For example, every certificate we issue is numbered -- every certificate," Chwalinski said, adding that the comptroller's office even receives a run-down sheet. Staffers couldn't pocket money without causing discrepancies in the number of certificates issued, he said.

Only certain staffers are allowed to handle payments in the 13th-floor City Hall office, Chwalinski said. No one who issues certificates collects the money for the documents, he added.

"Our internal controls are very strong," Chwalinski said. "But if the comptroller has better suggestions, we'll gladly listen."

This was the first audit the comptroller performed of the city clerk's office since 2002.


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