DENVER (AP) -- A Colorado vocational program for disabled persons is rife with financial mismanagement, paying for multiple degrees for one individual and racking up questionable credit-card spending while thousands of people are on a wait-list for help, according to an audit released Tuesday.
In one case, the state paid $315,000 in tuition, living expenses, and other costs during 19 years for one person to get multiple degrees, including one from a university in the Caribbean. In another case, one individual received $203,000 in tuition and other expenses during 32 years. Neither reached their employment goals, the audit found.
Those findings were among several that auditors said highlight a lack of oversight and accountability within Colorado's Vocational Rehabilitation Program, which is supposed to help unemployed and employed people with disabilities get jobs and keep them.
State lawmakers who received the audit wanted to know how anyone could receive state benefits for so long, especially while more than 4,000 people wait for help from the program.
"At some point I would think that anyone would say, 'Well, we have people on the waiting list, you've had enough,'" said Republican Sen. David Balmer.
Human Services Executive Director Reggie Bicha, whose department oversees the program, said he's wanted to know for some time whether there are safeguards to make sure individuals aren't getting unnecessary aid. Bicha, who's been executive director since 2011, said he was "getting answers that didn't make any sense" so he asked for the audit of the vocational program.
"In too many cases, our counselors were not having that constant contact and reevaluating" help to individuals, Bicha told lawmakers.
The program has a budget of $53.5 million and serves more than 19,800 people.
Auditors outlined many other areas of concern:
— Questionable spending on the program's 26 corporate credit cards, including gift cards, tools, and cleaning supplies — all items that staff could not demonstrate were necessary to helping people find jobs.
— Individuals participating in the vocational program have spent money intended for employment training for personal use. One returned a laptop paid with program funds to a store and got a video game system.
— Bonus payments of $171,000 to job-placement vendors, in addition to $340,000 the state had already paid in regular fees. Auditors said the bonuses were duplicative.
— As part of the program, counselors help participants by paying for things like clothes for job interviews, vision care, hearing aids, employment training, and psychological counseling. But auditors said that in some cases, expenses lacked documentation, supervisory approval or were unnecessary.
"This whole report, and certainly this section, is really shocking to me," Bicha said about the problem documenting expenses, "because what is being described here is what I would consider basic blocking and tackling of how you operate a business."
Bicha said program officials are working to increase oversight on expenses, and already reduced the number of credit cards to four, used only by supervisors. He said job-placement vendors are no longer getting bonuses. In the past, program staff said the bonuses were an incentive for vendors to find jobs for people in a timely manner.
In the end, lawmakers praised Bicha for taking responsibility for the issues raised in the audit and trying to fix them.
"I think that had it been someone else maybe with less organizational courage, it would be very easy to just move on down the road and not take responsibility on behalf of the taxpayers of this state. Thank you for doing that," said Republican Sen. Steve King.