CROWN POINT | A newly released State Board of Accounts audit calls some spending by the Lake County Solid Waste Management District "unnecessary and unreasonable," including the use of public money to rent a limousine rental for ethanol promoter Earl Powers.
The 25-page report dated Thursday questions spending by the district, which oversees recycling across the county and has contracted to sell to Powers tons of municipal waste for its conversion into ethanol. The proposed ethanol plant has been stalled for lack of private financing.
District Executive Director Jeff Langbehn said Tuesday he found the audit to be unreasonable since it relied on questionable interpretations of state law and the field examiner's failure to take into account the district's legitimate justifications for the spending.
"We previously have had six virtually clean audits, but with this one, I'm dumbfounded," Langbehn said.
The audit called the waste district to task for spending $150 in public money to rent a limousine in December 2009 to transport Powers from O'Hare International Airport in Chicago to a business luncheon at Gamba's Restaurant in Merrillville.
The Times reported the limousine service for Powers in an August 2010 article that also detailed $141,864 since 2007 in credit card bills, with some of the money spent wining and dining for a trash-to-ethanol development project.
"Powers reimbursed the district," Langbehn said Tuesday. "I don't know why there is such a big deal about it."
The audit said the district's employees used four credit cards to purchase more than $8,400 in meals, hotel rooms, fuel, flowers, car rental and electronics between 2009 and 2010 without a resolution by the 27-member board of directors authorizing such use and without documentation ensuring the money was spent on appropriate district business.
The audit concludes, "Every effort should be made by the government unit to avoid unreasonable or excessive cost. Credit cards should not be used to bypass the accounting system."
Langbehn said limousine service, luncheons and travel are expensive, but necessary expenses in promoting the district's business.
The new audit also questioned spending $14.93 on magazines, $19.99 on ear bud headphones, $18.16 on refreshments, $60 on a membership in an organization the promotes hunting and fishing in Michigan and $225 on three car washes.
A 10-page letter appended to the audit and written by Clifford Duggan Jr., the district's attorney, states the magazines, ear buds and refreshments were purchased during travel on district business.
The outdoor organization membership was connected with educational material the district uses, and the car washes were for elaborately painted "Enviromobiles, which have won a governor's award for their use at local schools in promoting public awareness of the district's mission," Duggan added.