Audit Counters What Legislators Want to Do with Universal Service Fund

While state legislators are in the process of stripping the audit powers of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission in holding schools, hospitals and libraries accountable for their Internet projects funded through a special phone-fund, the same powers were praised by a State Audit conducted in 2013. The audit came a year after the legislature adopted a bill encouraging more extensive review of the projects under the Oklahoma Universal Service Fund.

The financial review led by State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones had high praise for the Public Utilities Division of the Corporation Commission and its work in auditing the millions of dollars in projects.

“The PUD increased accountability and reduced risk by hiring additional staff and performing eligibility redeterminations on health care entities as authorized by House bill 2737,” stated the audit released in 2013. “Five percent of healthcare entities’ files reviewed did not contain adequate supporting documentation to ensure eligibility.”

The OUSF was created to provide reasonable and affordable internet access to schools and libraries and telemedicine services. But the State audit found that “unorganized documentation hindered our review of eligibility redetermination documentation.”

In other words, the Audit supports what PUD Director Brandy Wreath told OK Energy Today in a recent interview where he criticized the latest efforts of legislators who now want to ‘rubber stamp’ the projects without detailed and adequate auditing of the projects proposed by the hospitals and schools.

“Providing special unviersal services funding to ineligible recipients could lead to increased fees for telecommunication consumers,” stated the Audit. The audit said that prior to the statutory change, once an entity was initially determined eligible to receive special universal services, the telecommunications carrier continued to receive reimbursement from the OUSF absent an evaluation of the entity’s on-going eligibility status.

“Without ensuring information is complete and accurate, funding may be provided to carriers for ineligible services,” continued the audit. “If funding resources are not used in an appropriate manner, the availability of funds to other entities may be reduced or an increase in fees may be assessed on telecommunication service users.”

The audit said that transparency and accountabilityl in government programs was critical to maintaining public trust.

It was the same argument made by Wreath who said if HB 2616 were passed, it would kill transparency.

Nearly 18 months ago, David L. Hunt, Inspector General of the Federal Communications Commission made the same argument in testimony before the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology of the Committee on Energy and Commerce in the U.S. House. He testified of the need for more oversight of the Universal Service Fund.

“On the civil side, the OIG investigations team is continuing its oversight of the E-rate and other USF programs as well as the Commission’s spectrum auctions, to identify individuals and companies who may be engaging in activities that defraud these programs.”

His testimony came just a few months after the FCC ChairmanTom Wheeler announced the creation of a “strike force” to combat waste, fraud, and abuse in the Universal Service Fund programs.