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Learning things in Niagara Comptroller's audit finds enough to request a federal investigation

We don't know what federal investigators are likely to find when they start digging through the finances of the Niagara Falls School district, but it is sufficiently alarming that they were even asked to do it.

The request was made by the New York State Comptroller's Office following its scathing audit of the school district. Among other things, the audit found that the district may have overpaid Superintendent Carmen Granto $10,800 for vacation days; that Granto used his district credit card to pay expenses for outside consulting work; and that the district made 28 purchases totaling $186,000 without the benefit of competition, improperly paid $24,615 to a former administrator for leave time and kept the same external district auditor for 35 years, even though it failed to spot deficiencies in critical internal controls.

It's not unusual for the state comptroller's office to audit schools, and it's not uncommon for it to highlight problems. Occasionally it offers harsh criticism. Rarely does it refer a report to federal authorities who have the power to file criminal charges.

Some issues brought up in the report already have been corrected. Granto, who expected to retire at the end of this school year (with a greatly inflated pension) has repaid the $2,200 inappropriately charged to his district credit card. The district also has changed its external auditor, and is looking to hire a new business manager to succeed James J. Ingrasci, who retired in August. It has recovered most of the more than $500,000 in overpayments made to 272 employees who were cut an extra week's paycheck by accident last year.

Those are important steps, but now district officials -- and residents -- will have to await the end of the federal examination of the audit. That review should be done carefully but expeditiously and, in fairness to all involved, authorities should publicly announce their conclusions, whether they find criminal liability or not.

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