On Your Side Investigation: Missing inventory from state-funded colleges and universities

Published: May. 5, 2016 at 7:00 AM CDT|Updated: Oct. 10, 2016 at 11:58 AM CDT
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HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Mississippi publicly funded colleges and universities are required by law to track missing inventory, which is purchased using taxpayer dollars and tuition.

From 2013 to 2015, The University of Southern Mississippi has reported 283 missing items that were purchased at more than $400,000.

Through a public records request, WDAM 7 found that five handheld radios, over 100 computers and several sets of cubicles were just some of the hundreds of items reported missing.

USM Chief Communication Officer Jim Coll said missing inventory is normal.

"Yes, I would expect, we have 27,000 items that are assigned to thousands of individuals across many locations all across South Mississippi," he said.

Coll said most missing items are either no longer being used or simply misplaced.

"Once a year, there is an annual internal audit and then once every four years, each item is audited by the state," Coll said. "So they'll come in every year annually and look at one fourth of the assets of the university."

Mississippi State Auditor Stacey Pickering said, "It's not a hundred percent audit looking for every desk, table, chair, computer or car."

Pickering said the purpose of the state audit is to test the schools inventory system.

"We randomize it and that way if they can pass a 25 percent sample every year, you have good confidence that their practices and internal controls are all in place," Pickering said.

While USM provided several documents of missing items, Pearl River Community College claimed to only have lost three items in the past three years.

Roger Knight, PRCC's vice president for Business and Administrative Services, said the school has only lost a MacBook Pro, HP Laptop and Lincoln Welder from their 8,959 items.

"We have multimillion dollars in assets between our Hattiesburg Campus, our Poplarville Campus and our Hancock County Location," Knight said. "When you talk about 50, 60 or 70 buildings and you start looking at fixed assets in the way of furniture and equipment it adds up."

Pickering said, "It seems a little low. I'd expect them to have little more missing. So either they've got very good internal controls or they may not have realized they've got some items missing that should be accounted for. Either way it shows they are tracking it. They can get real numbers that they know has been dealt with."

Meanwhile, Jones County Junior College said it has not lost a single item in the past three years.

WDAM 7 made multiple requests for an interview with JCJC officials to report how the school managed to have a perfect record.

The requests for interviews were denied.

"There's always going to be missing inventory, some things as small as a voice recorder," Pickering said.

USM stated that department heads were responsible for missing items.

"If the actual value of an item you're referring to is $40, and I'm the responsible department head. That's $40 that I'm responsible for," Coll said.

USM provided copies of checks written to the university for lost items.

Department heads reimbursed the school for the depreciated value of the missing item.

Pickering stressed the importance of good record keeping.

"It's not just your inventory or finances, but your HR and everything," Pickering said. "It makes sure that we document. That we have accountability on the front end, but also the back end and that we have public record for the taxpayers."

Since WDAM 7's interview with USM on April 26, the university has sent several follow up emails from its press relations department indicating that its accounting officer has found 132 of their 283 missing items.

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