Written by Tony Gonzalez, The Tennessean

Needy families who want help paying energy bills, feeding their children or covering day care costs often have to navigate complex rules and lengthy application documents.

But their access to those programs was put at risk most recently by botched paperwork of another sort - by a state employee, according to auditors who examined the Department of Human Services.

In the most recent audit of DHS, which oversees some $3 billion in state and federal programs, inspectors found failures to report how grants were spent and oversight that failed to determine whether certain projects were ever completed.

"Not reporting information in accordance with (federal) requirements may be considered grounds for the suspension or termination of grants," auditors wrote.

So far, no money has gone away. But under the looming threat, DHS made one high-level staff change and has spent recent months trying to get things in order within its financial office on the seventh floor of its headquarters in downtown Nashville. The issue now has the full attention of federal officials, and that has DHS on its toes.

"We take the audit very seriously because it speaks to how we operate," said Basil Dosunmu, DHS deputy commissioner of finance and administration. "We know we have a role in fiscal stewardship."

In the fiscal year most recently examined - late 2011 through mid-2012 - DHS reported back to the federal government only on 37 of 843 grants given out to local governments and nonprofits. Those grants totaled $144 million for food programs, day cares, child support and home energy bills - all real help for real families.

The audit wasn't the first to find bureaucratic problems, but it did raise the alarm level. Inspectors recommended swift action to keep the money coming.

At stake are low-income programs across the state, many of which would be run out of business if state funding went away.

"That is the only funding stream that I'm aware of to operate on the magnitude that we're doing," said Donny King, executive director of TNKids Nutrition, a nonprofit that provides about 15,000 free meals across Robertson County during the summer.

Each day, King and volunteers feed about 40 children at the Blair Street Community Center, located in a red brick public housing complex in Springfield.

"Those kids are hungry," said King, who watches the children walk over twice a day for breakfast and lunch.

"There was a backpack (donation) program that was in operation, and we knew from the work they were doing that there was a lot of need in the county," King said. "We feel that we're not only filling the need there for some nutrition, but we're helping their education also."

King said DHS staffers have always been helpful, though he's seen evidence of turmoil in the department.

"I think it's been rough on them, maybe, trying to get everything done," he said.

But so far, he added, "it hasn't impacted us."

The dropped ball

At the heart of the recent audit are concerns about failures of the department's former budget coordinator, Adeniyi Bakare, to file reports to the federal government.

When he ran into problems filing documents online, the audit said, he simply gave up. Reports on millions of dollars' worth of programs weren't completed.

"He did not contact the federal awarding agency to determine why the errors occurred," auditors wrote.

In one particular area - reports on federal funds used to help reduce energy costs for low-income families, the elderly and the disabled - auditors found that $51 million paid to contractors who work on homes was never justified to the federal government.

How did that happen? Bakare told auditors that no one had instructed him to account for those payments.

Officials said the audit played a "significant role" in the decision to fire Bakare, who left the office July 5 and could not be reached for comment.

DHS makes changes

The department also has tried to clarify who is responsible for filing reports by shifting tasks to a different team. Staffers have undergone training and are now required to complete smaller tasks on more frequent deadlines, instead of all at once.

Two other fiscal directors who answered to the former budget coordinator also have left DHS. A department spokesman, Christopher Garrett, said those changes were unrelated to the audit but added that "some of the individuals who retired did so after learning about the audit findings and the plan to remedy those findings."

DHS officials have shared some improvements with auditors, but said other problems could take months to remedy. They vowed to monitor things more carefully.

"It's an opportunity to look at operational processes," Dosunmu said. "The focus of the department continues to be to deliver the service we're committed to as effectively and efficiently as possible."

That's good news in places such as Robertson County, where children enjoying extra meals through the summer don't know how close they came to losing them.

"I don't see how we could come up with $40,000 from any other source," King said. "That's just the bottom line."

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