Audit finds issues with Minnesota COVID-19 pandemic spending

An illustration of the coronavirus. (CDC)

Auditors examining nearly $400 million in pandemic spending in Minnesota found several instances in which state agencies exceeded their emergency authority or failed to properly document purchases or track supplies, according to a report released Thursday by the Office of the Legislative Auditor.

The purchases were made while state officials were under heavy pressure to respond quickly to curb the spread of COVID-19. But state agencies still had the responsibility to ensure that public money was well-spent — maybe even more so because emergency increases in state and federal funding raised the risk of misuse, said Lori Leysen, a deputy legislative auditor.

"Having strong controls is even more important than ever, because you’re creating the potential opportunity for fraud, waste and abuse," Leysen told the Star Tribune.

Auditors spot-checked about a third of the 637 state agency purchases coded as emergency responses to the pandemic. The report cited the Minnesota Department of Health, for example, for inconsistencies in purchasing and inventory records for face masks, gowns, COVID-19 tests and vaccine supplies.

The agencies named in the report generally defended their work, noting that the highlighted purchases all complied with state law — even if they deviated from usual practices.

"Staff had to manage massive increases in work volume, adapt to remote business processes, and resolve numerous emergency needs as the state supported Minnesotans through the pandemic," Evan Rowe, deputy commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development, said in a written reply to the audit.

"Despite these challenges, the transactions evaluated in the report saw payment accuracy rates of over 99.8%, and as is clear in the report, all transactions were lawful and consistent with Minnesota Statutes," he wrote.