Harris County Auditors Say Crime Stoppers Exam Stalled

Harris County auditors on Tuesday recommended tighter controls and oversight of county donations to Crime Stoppers of Houston after the nonprofit all but thwarted the department’s review of its finances, saying its cooperation was “not legally required”.

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Auditors attempted to review all Harris County funds donated to the nonprofit between 2012 and 2022 – more than $7.2 million in county funds, taxpayer dollars and subsidized services. the county – how they were spent and whether the nonprofit organization complied with contractual obligations and state and federal laws.

When auditors asked Crime Stoppers of Houston for more detailed information, including bank statements, accounts payable information, expenses and other county fund data, they hit a wall, according to the audit report presented Tuesday to the Court of Commissioners.

Crime Stoppers said some of the requested documents fell outside the retention period for its financial records and that because some contracts with the county did not include a right of audit clause, it was not “legally required”. to provide this information, according to the report. .

“The documents they provided were high-level summary documents,” Deputy County Auditor Errika Perkins said in an interview with the Chronicle. “We needed detailed expense documents. They felt like they weren’t legally required to provide these details.

In his 17-page report, Perkins wrote that his office used county accounting software to pull other information from county departments to identify funds given to Crime Stoppers over the past decade.

The nonprofit gave auditors its annual financial reports — which it publishes every year — and its tax returns, which are public under the law because it is a 501(c) ( 3), and its annual external audits. However, he waited until September 1 to finally agree to give listeners the more detailed information they were looking for – too late for it to be included in Tuesday’s report.

“Now we’re in a wait-and-see mode,” Perkins said.

These findings prompted Perkins to recommend that the county include federally recommended compliance requirements in all county contracts with Crime Stoppers for donations of money seized by asset forfeiture.

Perkins also recommended the county include legally binding language in future Crime Stoppers contracts that guarantee the right to audit the organization’s use of those funds, a practice used in a 2013-2015 contract between the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and Crime Stoppers.

The report also suggests the county include language giving it the right to audit financial performance standards, record-keeping and retention policies, and other specific terms in county contracts with Crime Stoppers.

Still, the 17-page review of Crime Stoppers’ finances provides insight into the nation’s largest Crime Stoppers organization, including the fact that county agencies have donated more than $7.2 million. dollars in cash or in-kind services to the organization over the past decade.

Over a 10-year period, the county commissioners, district attorney’s and district attorney’s offices of Harris County and several of its law enforcement agencies have donated approximately $2 million to Crime Stoppers .

The document shows the continued support of county entities for Crime Stoppers of Houston, which has been one of the largest and most prolific chapters in the nation since its founding in the 1980s.

Until 2015, state law capped general fund donations to Crime Stoppers organizations at $25,000. The county reached this cap from 2012 to 2015, with the exception of 2013. When the Texas Legislature raised this limit to $100,000, larger donations followed: $100,000 in 2015 and 2016; $75,000 in 2017 and 2019, $50,000 so far in the first four months of this year.

At the same time, county agencies also donated tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in seized forfeiture funds, the largest donation to come in 2021, when Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg — who once ran Crime Stoppers — has donated more than $500,000 to the organization. .

About $1.3 million of county funds went to “law enforcement,” according to the audit. Another $475,000 went to the Safe School Institute of Crime Stoppers, and smaller amounts went to fund its Safe Community program, a media specialist ($45,000) and victim services ($25,000). $000).

The investigation into Houston’s Crime Stoppers finances comes amid a notable spike in Harris County homicides in recent years — a trend mirrored elsewhere in the United States — and as Crime Stoppers has grown from its traditional role as a whistleblower line to an organization focused on crime prevention and a wide range of public safety issues, from teen dating to cybercrime to animal cruelty.

The organization, which has just over a dozen employees, is well-liked across the city, holds meetings for relatives of murder victims and hosts numerous safety presentations for schools and community groups. . His supporters credit him with standing up for people they believe have no one else to represent them and helping solve thousands of crimes.

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At the same time, he has courted controversy for taking a more vocal stance on the violence happening in and around Harris County, with critics accusing him of becoming more political and spreading misleading information about the impact bail reform. Others have questioned Mankarious’ salary, which exceeds that of Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez or Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña and rivals that of Houston Police Chief Troy. Finish.

The Houston Chronicle and New York Times stories drew an angry response from Crime Stoppers and its advocates. In April, Victim Services Coordinator Andy Kahan told commissioners Crime Stoppers had “never deviated” from its mission to solve and prevent crime, and that the organization was a victim of the politicization of the public safety, and that people who felt it had gotten “in their way.”

On Tuesday, Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said the audit stemmed from the Chronicle investigation, as well as the dueling New York Times article. The stories had raised “serious concerns” about Crime Stoppers’ use of taxpayers’ money, he said.

“I commend the efforts of the county auditor and the county attorney to ensure that our taxpayers’ money is being used properly,” he said in an emailed statement. “Unfortunately, Crime Stoppers has continually refused to cooperate, and either doesn’t know what was done with the millions of dollars entrusted to it, or just feels entitled to hide it from the people of Harris County.”

Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, who as sheriff donated $1 million to Crime Stoppers in 2009 to help build its Midtown headquarters, said he was surprised by the reluctance of the organization to participate in the audit.

“I hope that if we continue this collaboration with this non-profit organization, compliance will be what it should be,” he said. “I hope this nonprofit will be an open book.”

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Mark M. Gagnon