Jefferson arts group director calls audit wrong, an ‘agenda’

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- The set for the Jefferson Performing Arts Society production of the Buddy Holly Story is under construction at East Jefferson High School Tuesday.  Natalie Liddle, Christopher Torma, Theo Fogelman and R.C. Crow construct a platform on the stage.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- The set for the Jefferson Performing Arts Society production of the Buddy Holly Story is under construction at East Jefferson High School Tuesday. Natalie Liddle, Christopher Torma, Theo Fogelman and R.C. Crow construct a platform on the stage.

The Jefferson Parish Performing Arts Society is challenging the findings of a recently leaked audit of the nonprofit by Jefferson Parish’s internal auditor, and Executive Director Dennis Assaf is questioning the “agenda” behind the audit’s premature release.

Assaf released a lengthy response to the preliminary draft of the audit that questioned the agency’s spending practices and raised concerns with Jefferson Parish Council Chairman Chris Roberts. Parish President John Young has agreed to halt payments to JPAS until several issues are addressed.

But Assaf said that several of the concerns raised in the audit had already been addressed by the agency before Auditor William “Tommy” Fikes completed his draft report. Assaf expressed anger over the fact that the audit was leaked to media members prior to his agency receiving a copy, or being given a chance to discuss the findings with the parish Ethics and Governmental Compliance Committee.

“This tells me there was really no desire to help and strengthen us — Louisiana’s largest theatrical producer and Jefferson Parish’s premier arts organization,” Assaf wrote in an email on Tuesday. “It tells me there was another agenda.”

Fikes’ audit found several troubling practices at the nonprofit in particular: the rampant use of credit cards by employees without proper controls; constant access to blank checks that already contained Assaf’s signature; direct reimbursements to Assaf totaling $15,000; individuals working as both full-time employees of the nonprofit and as independent contractors; and a lack of controls on Assaf’s ability to spend money without additional authorization.

Roberts also raised concerns about Assaf’s $165,000 annual salary, which included a recent $30,000 raise. The council approved an emergency $325,000 payment to the nonprofit this summer after state funding for the group was cut, but Young said last week that none of that money has been spent. The audit could be discussed at the Jefferson Parish Council’s meeting Wednesday.

Assaf acknowledged that JPAS lacked several internal controls but said the group was eager to hear Fikes’ suggestions and figure out ways to make improvements. After an initial meeting in October, Assaf said the group developed new policies and procedures that were presented to Fikes in January. However, he said those changes weren’t included in Fikes’ report.

“I was surprised that (Fikes) didn’t seem more positively responsive,” Assaf wrote.

According to the group’s formal response to the audit, JPAS has made the following changes to its practices some of which are contained in a new accounting manual.

JPAS has discontinued the use of pre-approved requisition forms, discontinued the practice of writing checks to “cash,” required the review of expenditures by member of the board of directors, required proper documentation for credit cards or employees will have their pay docked, and created a standard reimbursement form and travel form.

The group’s response also noted that concerns about JPAS selling alcohol were unfounded because the group never actually sold alcohol but instead made the beverages available with a “suggested donation.” JPAS is conducting an inventory of all of its fixed assets and is monitoring its concessions inventory, the response noted.

In addition, the response defended the use of Assaf’s relatives in some productions, noting they were qualified, but said that in the future those decisions would be discussed at a board meeting. The group also defended Assaf’s salary as being in line with his experience and workload.

JPAS has changed its guidelines for using the “independent contractor” designation, and any employee whose regular duties include state management or acting assignments will do those jobs as part of their regular duties. Assaf said the group remains interested in meeting with parish officials to discuss the audit and JPAS’ responses.