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NJ comptroller audits NJ Shares program

Samantha Henry, Associated Press

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) -- A program meant to help New Jerseyans struggling with utility bills has come under scrutiny by state officials, who have raised questions about the way it is administered.

New Jersey's comptroller released an audit Tuesday of NJ Shares, a nonprofit program that provides emergency utility bill assistance to households experiencing temporary financial difficulties.

Auditors reviewing the program from Jan 1, 2009, to Sept. 7, 2012, found weak oversight of grant eligibility and verification, questioned some of the program's expenditures and found its web-based intake system lacking enough security measures to keep information private.

The audit found that more than one third of the audit's sample of 338 recipients lacked proper documentation to verify the incomes of all household applicants, and found that 31 recipients should have been deemed ineligible after their stated income was compared with tax returns. Officials for NJ Shares said in their response to the audit that they do not have access to tax returns and must rely on documentation submitted by applicants to verify their income.

The report also questioned several charges for promotional or community outreach events that included catered events at NHL New Jersey Devils games, trips to Atlantic City, eight restaurant charges each exceeding $1,000, and a bill for alcohol that topped $3,000.

"The number of errors and the nature of some of the errors could indicate an intent to hide certain transactions," the report said.

NJ Shares officials said in response that they could justify all expenditures, and that trips and catered sporting events were paid for by a Communications Lifeline outreach initiative approved and funded by a telecommunications company that runs the program.

NJ Shares administrators said they did not agree with all the audit's findings, but were cooperating with state officials to improve oversight and administration of the program.

The comptroller's report says NJ Shares has developed policies and procedures concerning credit card usage, travel, reimbursement of expenses, accounting for expenses, and wireless phone distribution and usage in response to the audit.