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Benda double-billing called accidental

The man who was state auditor when Richard Benda double-billed state government for travel reimbursements said it may have been accidental, and a flaw in the system may have contributed to it.

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Benda, then the state secretary of tourism and development, submitted and was reimbursed for three vouchers that included four trips to China and two trips to Las Vegas in 2009 and 2010. He only took two trips to China and one trip to Las Vegas.

Rich Sattgast, who was the state auditor at the time and is now the state treasurer, said there’s no evidence that Benda purposely submitted the receipts for double payments, “so I give him the benefit of the doubt on that.”

Benda was found dead Oct. 22 in a shelter belt near Lake Andes. He died of a self-inflicted shotgun wound that was ruled a suicide.

Soon after his body was found, it was learned there were ongoing investigations into the Governor’s Office of Economic Development covering the time he oversaw it, and also into the use of the federal immigrant-investor program that funded an Aberdeen beef plant whose loans he monitored after leaving state government.

Sattgast said the Auditor’s Office received a bundle of travel vouchers from Benda, in which were stacked the double vouchers for trips to China and Las Vegas.

Vouchers are standardized forms that outline the dates and time of travel with accompanying receipts, or other proof of purchase, submitted for reimbursement. Benda’s vouchers included airfare tickets, credit card statements and flight purchase confirmations.

Sattgast said it’s common for state employees to use their own credit cards for purchases like plane tickets, meals and hotel rooms.

“They’re allowed to use their own credit card for purchasing regardless of where they travel to,” he said. “It saves the taxpayers money when an individual uses their own credit card.”

Current State Auditor Steve Barnett said the double-billing involved three of Benda’s vouchers, each of which included other expenses along with the trips in question.

The first voucher, dated December 2009, included airfare charges for two trips to China for $982.90 and $3,740.60. The overall voucher included other items and totaled more than $11,000.

The second voucher, dated March 2010, included charges for the same two trips to China and a trip to Las Vegas for $836.30. It totaled more than $16,000.

The third voucher, dated April 2010, included another charge for the same airfare to Las Vegas. It totaled more than $22,000.

Benda was paid double for all three trips in question. The over-payments to Benda totaled $5,559.80.

“Basically, there was a crack in the system at the finance officer level,” Sattgast said.

Each state government office has a finance officer who handles travel vouchers. Each receipt accompanying a voucher must be scrutinized and approved by both the finance officer and the department head. They must also determine the vouchers submitted are for state business and that the receipts correspond with trips mentioned on the voucher.

Benda was the department head in this case.

“I would give the benefit of the doubt that it was an oversight on the part of the finance officer, and even on the part of Richard Benda,” Sattgast said. “We’re talking about only $6,000.”

When Sattgast was the state auditor, he tried to change the oversight of the finance officers. He said each department head has always overseen his or her own finance officer. Sattgast has always thought finance officers should be employees of the state auditor, he said.

“I had those discussions about 10 years ago,” Sattgast said. “It was met with resistance by the Legislature.”

So, the system stayed the same — finance officers continue to check receipts and vouchers for their department, with oversight by their own department head, and then any one of seven auditors in the auditor’s office does a “100 percent review” of the vouchers that come through, Sattgast said.

Why didn’t any of the auditors catch Benda’s double billing? Sattgast said different auditors may have seen each of the three vouchers, since they were submitted at different times.

Sattgast also said he does not know why the double-billing was missed by the one person who looked at all of Benda’s receipts — the finance officer — and Sattgast believes “the finance officer should have caught this. That’d be the one person who knows what person takes more than one trip to China.”

Tony Venhuizen, spokesman for Gov. Dennis Daugaard, said Benda typically saved travel receipts for months at a time and submitted them on one voucher.

“As a consequence, he included receipts for the same trips on more than one voucher,” Venhuizen said. “And because of the length of those reimbursement forms and the time in between submitting, it was not noticed the same receipts had been used twice.”

Sattgast said there are no rules regarding when an employee can be reimbursed for an expense. Theoretically, a state employee could get reimbursed for a receipt from even several years ago, but it would be questioned, he said. However, turning in three or four months’ worth of receipts isn’t uncommon when an employee does extensive travel.

“There should be a department policy, but I don’t know that the auditor’s office can put in a rule to that effect,” Sattgast said.

Barnett said he wants to make sure this type of incident doesn’t happen again.

“Our office is working with the Bureau of Finance and Management on steps that can be taken to tighten up internal control through the submission process,” he said.

Sattgast said Benda had sworn the receipts he presented were the only ones he had, and they were stamped as true and correct for the vouchers they accompanied.

Sattgast said the tourism and development finance officer and Benda both authorized the stamp and signed a perjury statement saying the receipts were true and correct.

“Strong internal controls in an agency should also prevent this type of discrepancy,” Venhuizen wrote in an email to The Daily Republic, “which is why the governor is asking the Eide Bailly accounting firm to review our internal controls procedure to recommend improvements.”

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