A new Columbia River Crossing project audit, which was mandated in this year's state transportation budget, won't examine all facets of the project because of funding constraints, Washington State Auditor Troy Kelley said Friday.
"The budget amount is very small, so in terms of a full-blown audit across the board, that's not something we can do," Kelley said while sitting down with The Columbian during a trip to Vancouver on Friday. "The worst thing would be to bite off more than we can chew and not be able to finish it. … The Legislature wouldn't be happy."
What the audit will focus on are architectural and engineering contracts awarded for the apparently defunct Interstate 5 Bridge replacement plan. Auditors will look to see if there were any overcharges or unauthorized services provided between 2005, when the first contracts were awarded, and June of this year, when the project began shutting down. Construction never began, but about $170 million was spent on the planning.
Earlier this year,state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, a CRC opponent, worked a provision into the state's 2013-15 transportation budget that gave the state's Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee $200,000 to conduct a "forensic audit" of the CRC. The committee decided to contract with the state auditor's office to do the CRC audit.
"JLARC felt we were better suited to do this type of audit than they were," Kelly Collins, deputy director of state and local audits with the auditor's office, said by phone Friday. JLARC usually focuses its efforts on state agencies, while the state auditor's office has experience working with local jurisdictions, she said.
Because the auditors have only $200,000 to work with, "we may not be able to look at every transaction, and go as deep," Collins said. Instead, the auditors might have to narrow their focus to the biggest contract expenses and anything that looks irregular, she said.
The audit should be completed by April, at which time a report of the findings will be released to the public, Collins said.
The state auditor's office has 360 employees and conducts about 2,600 audits each year. About 15 to 20 of those are large-scale performance audits that focus on high-profile areas of government. Some performance audits can cost more than $1 million each, Kelley said.
Technically, the auditor's office could choose the CRC project as the subject of one of its performance audits, but the office's overall budget has been cut, and Kelley said he wants to use the money that remains to tackle other topics.
A performance audit on the CRC "would be much broader and take longer, and it's a funding issue, too," Kelley said. "We can't choose everything. There's other important issues as well."
Kelley, a Democrat, was elected auditor last fall. Kelley said his staff had tried to speak with several CRC stakeholders, including Benton and state Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, when deciding how to narrow the scope of the CRC audit. In a comment to an online version of this story Friday, Rivers denied being contacted by the auditor’s office “regarding narrowing the scope on the Columbia River Crossing audit or any other matter.”
Since the CRC project began, a couple other studies have been conducted on the project. The Washington State Department of Transportation did its own internal audit. Vancouver forensic accountant Tiffany Couch also released a series of reports that critiqued the project.