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The Defense Department is just starting its second year of full-scale financial audits, and it’s likely to take many more before those efforts yield a clean opinion. But the process is already having at least one beneficial effect: It’s pushed the military services to account for tens of millions of dollars in government property they’d lost track of.
According to DoD’s auditors, property accountability issues are still among the most serious problems preventing it from passing an audit. In the first year of the full-scope examination, auditors issued more than 170 separate findings and recommendations detailing the military services shortcomings in tracking their small-item inventory and real estate.
But David Norquist, DoD’s CFO and comptroller, said progress along those lines has already delivered concrete proof for why the audit is not merely a paperwork drill.
“We discovered there are certain facilities where what they thought they had in inventory did not match what they had in inventory. And if your responsibility is spare parts for airplanes, the accuracy of that inventory matters,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week.
One example was how, at Utah’s Hill Air Force Base, a stockpile of missile motors was erroneously listed as unserviceable even though they were in perfectly good condition. Putting them back into circulation instead of ordering new ones saved the Air Force $53 million.
“In other places, if you go to Osan and Kadena [air bases in Japan], they had 14,000 munitions worth $2.2 billion, and 100 percent were accounted for — not a single exception,” Norquist said. “What we’ve learned is there are some places that are doing this quite well, and there are others where we need to help them fix their processes, but the commanders in the field recognize the direct connection to mission and readiness. They saw the tangible value, and I think as we move forward, the accuracy of the data and adopting more businesslike practices will be tremendously helpful.”
Facilities ‘no one knew existed’
Instances of bad or missing data about entire warehouses worth of parts came up more than once during the course of the 2019 audit.
Thomas Modly, the undersecretary of the Navy, said the Navy found something similar when its auditors began examining a facility in San Diego.
“When we went out and actually started counting inventory and understanding where our stuff was, they found a warehouse that no one knew existed, and it had $26 million worth of parts for the E-2 and the F-18,” he said. “It was not categorized. It did not sit on any inventory system that we had in the whole Department of the Navy. Once that was identified, we were able to requisition $19 million worth of parts to aircraft that were waiting for them and were down because we didn’t even know we had those parts. This is a serious problem for us that we really have to get after, because at the end of the day, it impacts our ability to perform the mission, and our costs.”
The DoD Inspector General reported similar issues in its summary of the 2019 audit findings. More than 100 Blackhawk helicopter blades that were listed as available for use, but that were actually damaged. Fuel injectors stored in warehouses with no documentation to show which military service owned them. Entire facilities that had been demolished years ago, but are still listed as active on the military’s property books.
The IG reported 20 overall material weaknesses after the first audit, and then refined the list down to six that auditors thought were most concerning. Two of the six had to do with property — one encompassed spare parts and other inventory, while the other dealt with bigger-ticket items like real estate.
“We’ve gone out and said, ‘Give us a list of a certain asset and how many you have and where they’re located.’ And when we go, we either find that they have more than they thought, or the ones on their lists don’t exist,” said Carmen Malone, the deputy assistant inspector general for audit. “If you have something in your inventory records that actually can’t be used, you’re not going to order something, because you think you already have it. From an inventory standpoint, that is a big deal.”
Malone said one of the reasons the IG considers the property issue so serious is that it has a direct bearing on military readiness.
“It’s not just from a financial statement standpoint,” she said. “We are out talking to the everyday operating people and making sure that they understand that what they do impacts not just the financial statements. This information will be used as a central location for decision makers across the department from a readiness and logistics standpoint as well. If the information is accurate for financial statements, it’s going to be accurate for the decision makers, which ultimately affects the operations and readiness of the department.”
At last week’s hearing, Norquist declined to predict when the department will finally earn a clean opinion on its full financial statement, but he said he expected that either the Army or the Marine Corps would pass an audit of a small portion of their individual statements — namely, their working capital funds — within the “next couple years.”
But Modly said his department has major, systemic challenges it still needs to solve with its accounting systems before audit passage is a reasonable probability — at least on an ongoing, repeatable basis.
“We have nine current general ledger systems. They’re not connected, and they create all kinds of disparities in our ability to truly understand our financial information,” he said. “We have business systems that are even more complicated that require interfaces that cause breaks in data security. Because of all those problems, we’re doing a lot of estimating, a lot of hand-jamming of information that most modern industrial corporations never have to do. Most modern industrial corporations can push a button and generate a financial report. We are not even close to that, and we have to get better.”