The Columbia River Crossing’s new director has called for an internal audit of the $3.6 billion project’s finances and says more regular and transparent reporting of spending is necessary as the largest public works venture in the Pacific Northwest continues.
Nancy Boyd, who took control of the five-mile Interstate 5 bridge and highway project in April, said she asked the Washington State Department of Transportation’s auditing division to look over the CRC as a matter of “good business practice.”
So far, $130 million has been spent in planning, with construction expected to start in 2013. Project costs top $1 million a month.
Boyd said she hopes the WSDOT audit won’t turn up any major flaws in the project’s accounting, but is prepared to accept any criticisms the panel might find.
“We’ll take whatever recommendations or observations that come from the audit … to make sure we put into place whatever is necessary to prevent whatever they find from happening again,” she said. “We’ll make sure that we are following procedures and being good stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars.”
But Tiffany Couch, a Vancouver forensic auditor hired by CRC critic and local businessman David Madore, said she has serious doubts about the CRC’s ability to track its own spending.
One problem: The CRC doesn’t track all of its spending under one roof. The Washington and Oregon departments of transportation, the two lead agencies that distribute money to the project, keep separate financial accounts.
“How in the heck do you manage a project if you don’t know what everyone is spending?” questioned Couch, a principal with Vancouver-based Acuity Group PLLC. “If I’m going to put a kitchen in my house, I want to know how much it costs.”
Boyd acknowledged the problem, and said finding a way to merge the two state’s spending accounts is among her top priorities.
“The project has tried to integrate, and it has been a little bit of a challenge, with two state agencies with two different accounting systems,” Boyd said. “It’s one of the things we need to do to get our work done.”
The project is able to track its spending, she said — it just takes time and work pulling records from both states.
“It’s not so much an accounting issue, it’s a way that you extract reports issue,” Boyd said. “It’s cumbersome to get information.”
Couch also alleged that project staff has ignored several public records requests in violation of state law. And she said the records that have been turned over are a disorganized digital shoebox of receipts.
Under state law, a government agency has five days to acknowledge a public records request and either deny the request or outline how long it may take to supply the records. Couch said that four requests made by her and Madore between March 4 and July 5 have yet to be answered. In a few other cases, she only got partial responses.
“They are completely ignoring us,” she said.
Couch said she has contacted the state Attorney General’s office about the alleged violation of state law. A spokesman for the Attorney General said Open Government Ombudsman Tim Ford did confirm that the law says an agency must respond within five days.
Boyd declined to comment on Couch’s allegations, except to say the CRC has a large volume of records requests from media and citizens. “My understanding is that we’re doing our best to respond in a timely manner,” she said.
During an interview last week, Couch said she’s not a supporter of the Columbia River Crossing, and said all options, including a third bridge, a different design and the elimination of light rail into Vancouver should be on the table. She said her issues with getting records was “pushback” for working for Madore.
“We’re treating someone in this town who is a very successful, very lucrative business owner … as if he’s some sort of crazy nut,” said Couch of Madore, who owns U.S. Digital in east Vancouver. “He puts 125 people to work every day. We treat him like he’s stupid because he’s asking questions.”
Madore did get records relating to a request for the CRC’s expenditures, funding, vendor contracts and vendor invoice details, with supporting data.
But it was 724 digital PDF files with no relation to one another, Couch said, adding that some files topped 1,000 pages.
“It looks like they took a leaf blower to the documents, set them on a copy machine and sent them to us in PDF forms,” said Couch, who was hired by Madore to help sort the files.
But Boyd said Couch got what she asked for. She said she also sat down with Couch on May 9 to help her sort out the files, and supplied a notebook to help Couch navigate the files.
“Tiffany has struggled with having to dig through all the raw data,” Boyd said. “That’s what she asked for, though. We gave her what she asked for.”
The CRC doesn’t keep its data organized in the format Couch was looking for, and had Couch narrowed the wide scope of her request, the staff might have been able to provide a more organized response, Boyd said.
Couch said that she’s never seen data kept in such a manner, and that she was only given a spreadsheet that gave expenditures made by WSDOT and had nothing to do with the files.
“One would reasonably expect that when you pull up a PDF that those documents relate to each other either by vendor or by year,” and that was not the case with the CRC’s response, she said.
Said Boyd: “When we give you what you ask for, it’s sometimes not exactly what you were asking for.”
The project director said she hopes that some of the changes she’s planning to make will help make getting clear answers to people such as Couch easier and faster.
“We will start to develop a regular, reliable source of reporting that helps answer those sorts of questions: Are we managing our scope, schedule and budget?” Boyd said. “And hopefully also give a little bit of a look ahead so people know what’s coming up.”
The Columbia River Crossing is also undergoing a review of its financial assumptions by the Oregon State Treasury. That report is expected to be finished in the next few weeks.
Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542 or firstname.lastname@example.org or www.facebook.com/reporterdamewood or www.twitter.com/col_cityhall.