Audit: Wine commission poured public dollars into lavish plans

Audit: Wine commission poured public dollars into lavish plans
SEATTLE -- A $3 billion state industry is under the spotlight for wasting public money.

The state auditor says tax funds were misused for parties and presents by the Washington State Wine Commission.

"Especially right now, every nickel of public funds is very precious in every budget," said Washington State Auditor Brian Sonntag. "When we find money being misspent or questionably spent on banquet rooms, catering for a commissioner's going-away party, I think the public expectation is that these are not appropriate expenditures."

The state analyzed the commission's vendor payments between June 2009 and May 2010. The state Auditor's Office found $7,598 in questionable expenditures, and couldn't determine whether an additional $4,465 for meals with meetings and travel were allowable.

"The audits are there for a reason: to make sure that we are shepherding any funds in a proper fashion," said John Bookwalter, chairman of the Washington State Wine Commission. "We have addressed every one of those issues in the audit."

The audit calls the commission's internal controls over payments "inadequate," saying they resulted in "questionable expenditures."

Auditors raised red flags over $4,922 spent on a banquet room and catering for a commissioner's farewell party, as well as $1,090 spent on wine and alcohol for dinner during an annual board retreat. Analysts say $696 was spent on seven purchases of wine during staff meals not related to promotional hosting, and $112 was spent on gift certificates and doughnuts to give as tokens of appreciation to vendors. (Read the full audit)

"It's corrected - it's been corrected - and it will not take place again in the future," said Bookwalter in a phone interview from Richland, Wash., where he runs a vineyard. "I think it's an ongoing process that every commission in any government body goes through each and every year. I'm glad that these audits are taking place on a regular bass."

The state Auditor's Office says it used to audit the wine commission bi-annually, but began annual audits after it continued to find problems. In 2005, auditors raised questions about more than $14,000 spent on trips by the then-executive director.

"They're public funds, and to me, it's just that simple," added Sonntag. "It's public money, and if this agency or any state agency, large or small, doesn't have good controls in place, doesn't have good systems in place to safeguard their handling of the public's money - to me, that's a big deal."