Amy Oliver-Cindy Acree-11/10/2011

Station: KFKA 1310 AM
Show: Amy Oliver
Guest: Cindy Acree
Date: 11/10/2011
Topics: Governor’s Energy Office, On-Line Schools, Performance Audits, Open Records Requests.

Click Here for Audio

Oliver: I am so pleased to have on the line, State Rep. Cindy Acree, who really has been on this issue for more than a year-the Governor’s Energy Office. And really, one of the big stories here is how difficult is was for a sitting legislator to get information from the Governor’s Energy Office. Rep. Acree, thanks so much for being on the Amy Oliver Show.

Acree: Good morning Amy. Its great to be on.

Oliver: Tell me what was it? Why did you start even asking questions about the Governor’s Energy Office? I mean, they are an off-budget agency. They usually only have a couple million dollars. What made you think, “I’ve got to start asking questions? Because you are really the only one.

Acree: You know I was a freshman legislator. The whole idea of off budget is astounding to me. I am a business development consultant. I make a living helping companies look at their profit margins and their organizational structures and trying to enhance efficiencies and cost-effective management strategies. So as I looked at the way government does business in general, I was perplexed at what constituted good business practices. They are actually absent. But that office particularly was receiving millions of federal dollars and it appeared to be that we had a hands-off policy at the capitol. That the legislature shouldn’t interfere with an organization that receives federal dollars because they are not getting money from the state budget.

Oliver: And you thought differently?

Acree: I was appalled. I don’t care if it’s coming from Washington or the state or the city, it’s coming out of my pocket.

Oliver: Yea, it doesn’t matter if it’s the right pocket or the left pocket. It’s still my wallet.

Acree: That’s right.

Oliver: So you began asking questions. And you asked the Governor’s Energy Office, because they are still subject to the Colorado Open Records Act Requests. You are a legislator, you should be able to just ask questions and say I would like to know you are spending money. And they should just tell you, right?

Acree: You bet. And it didn’t start with open record requests. I had made efforts on my own to reach out to the office, the comptroller, people that would know what the dollars were that were being expended out of that office. I first asked for their financial statements and the kind of laughed, “you know we don’t really keep financial statements considering what the normal purview for those financial statements are in the business world.” So I said ok, let me see the spreadsheet. And then we had a big discussion on what the state could accommodate and what they would look like. After about six months of this, going back and forth and back and forth, I filed an open records request because I new they had to comply and comply quickly.

Oliver: And that is amazing to me. As the average person, we do a lot of trainings, showing people how to write an open records request. And I tell people, listen, it isn’t just you that they will try and stall or try and figure out how to not get you the information for which you are asking. But you have a sitting legislator, somebody who is elected to represent her constituents who can’t get the information either. To me the fact that you had to go as far as submitting an open records request is another huge story in all of this.

Acree: Part of the problem here is that it doesn’t really matter. In all defense of the office itself ,whether or not it was problems associated with how the state, in general, collects data and tracks expenses. Or if it was a problem on a part of the energy office. You hit it right on the head. It should never take a state official that much time to get information that they think is pertinent to the management of the state.

Oliver: Yea, it’s insane. You got the information.

Acree: I did, albeit was not organized in a fashion that was easy to use. We got about 1,500 pages of a spreadsheet, line item by line item.

Oliver: And having seen it, I have rehashed for everybody , you with a million other things to do needed another set of eyes and we were happy to assist you in this. So you found out some things about how the Governor’s Energy Office is spending money. And you are asking for an audit. Actually, lets back up. You contacted the Governor, correct? Have you talked with him?

Acree: I did contact Gov. Hickenlooper. This problem started long before his administration. This is not associated with the person in change as much as it is with the culture around this department and other departments of the state. I was able to meet with Gov. Hickenlooper and I share his concern to protect our ability to utilize out state’s resources for energy purposes. I really do believe that he is all about good government. And he will help me resolve this. We are going to find a solution that makes the state better managed and more accountable and transparent to the constituents.

Oliver: What are your biggest concerns with the Governor’s Energy Office?

Acree: Lets go back a little bit to the history behind the office. This office was organized back in the late 70’s following the oil embargo. It was a response to energy independence, trying to create state offices all around the country that would focus on enhancing their energy efficiency and energy alternatives. So the money came down from an oil trust fund on settlements and fines through the oil and gas industry. And these moneys were distributed throughout various states. Today those funds are just about gone. I think there may be $2 million left in Colorado’s fund. But since then we have grown. It started out that office was named the Energy and Management Conservation Office. In 2007, Governor Ritter changed the name to the Governor’s Energy Office.

Oliver: Because he owns it. No, I’m just kidding.

Acree: You know, if you don’t want to be tied to it, maybe we should change the name.

Oliver: Yea, exactly. So they changed their name. Did their mission change?

Acree: Originally this was all about energy efficiency and developing alternative energy sources or maximizing our ability for us to obtain our own natural gas, oil and gas, mining components. If you look at their website, the mission has become more economic development. This is a quote from the website, “To promote sustainable economic development in Colorado through advancing the State’s energy market and industry to create jobs, increase energy security, lower long-term consumer costs and protect our environment.” That’s pretty encompassing.

Oliver: Yea, and just out of curiosity, we do have an Economic Development Office don’t we?

Acree: We do. We also have an Oil and Gas Commission, we have Department of Environment that works with regulatory issues to protect our environment.

Oliver: We also have the Public Utilities Commission, which has a similar mission statement.

Acree: You bet. And now we have been receiving millions of dollars from the federal government in terms of our funding. So the situation has grown just like the office has grown over the needs to have some better oversight of how we use the money…

Oliver: Rep. Acree, you have suggested a full audit of the Governor’s Energy Office. Are you going to pursue that?

Acree: You bet. I have already submitted the letter to the State Auditor’s Office and the Committee. And what I have done is ask for a full audit that encompasses all the administration of this money but also all the various projects that they are working on. There have been audits done on in the past and you can see those on the Governor’s Energy Office’s website. But this particular audit would be unique because it goes as far as to ask for a performance audit of all the companies that are receiving over $100,000 a year from that office.

Oliver: Will that include non-profits as well?

Acree: Yes.

Oliver: That is one of the things I was talking about earlier on the show. Some of the non-profits that have gotten money as well.

Acree: This is important because one of the biggest issues people have in their perception of government is that we don’t track well the money that we are giving out in grants and that we are using in our contracting and procurement process. So I am not implying that there is anything illegal or wrong going on here, I just think it is important at some point to document that the services that are being rendered on these contracts are meeting the mission of the department and of the money that was sent from Washington for us to distribute in that regard.

Oliver: You know what was interesting too, after Channel 4 interviewed you, they also went over to the Governor’s Energy Office. The spokesperson of the Governor’s Energy Office seemed to share your concerns. She sort of said she didn’t know where some of this money was and they were concerned enough to make changes in their travel and cell phone policies.

Acree: Keep in mind that there is a new administration so a lot of the staff over there have changed. And as I have worked through some of these issues I am sure it became apparent to them as well that they needed to do something to address the phone bill issue, the travel issue. We still have $9 million of expenses that are recorded in the spreadsheets. They are just not explained. So we don’t know what those went to. So it is apparent that we have some poor accounting practices that we need to clean up. But I think that the issues are broader in relationship to our expectations of how to run a well-managed government in general.

Oliver: Now you had a press conference I think yesterday morning just to answer questions and it seemed like got…I saw a press release from the Democrat, I guess it was the Senate Office, saying that…did they hand out the press release at your press conference?

Acree: They did.

Oliver: Why would they do that?

Acree: That is a strategy that they purported I think would benefit their ability to get the word out. And it really doesn’t matter. My issue is on the record in terms of working towards smart and better government and making sure that my constituents are represented in the pursuit of transparency. And in many cases I believe that we are all on the same page in that regard.

Oliver: I would assume that all the members all support you wanting to find out what is happening at the Governor’s Energy Office.

Acree: The Governor’s Energy Office itself issued a letter to request a more specific audit of the programs that they are currently undertaking. I believe that we will be able to combine those into one audit and have a very good audit and actually have some better bang for our buck for the money we spend conducing the audit. The Governor is supportive of us that we are addressing this issues so I don’t think that there is going to be any resistance in that regard.

Oliver: To let listeners know, I think that really was in response to the vote to audit just on-line K-12. I think the Republicans had said on the committee that lets do a full audit on all K-12 education. Lets not single out one part. That will get audited but we want to do all of K-12. And that got voted down.

Acree: Lets talk about that because I stand by my vote. I made the right vote in that regard. When we are spending $170,000 conducing an audit, we need to be sure that we auditing the right thing. When we have a request that silos one part of the problem and there has been a lot of press recently on on-line schools in general. And if there are schools that are breaking the law, they probably need to be handled through the AG’s office. But in this particular case we have a Department of Education, who in 2007 was charged with oversight of on-line schools. The ability to generate reports and to look at what they were doing. But the issue requested in the audit request focused on performance data. Measures their certification project. But performance standards, graduation rates. And then looking at the per pupil count days for the purposes of state funding and how that would be impacted. Well, those are the same issues that impact all of K-12. And it would make sense, if we are going to look into per pupil count days for the purposes of determining how many times money is given to a school , the student withdraws and goes to a different school ad the money does not follow that student. I think that is a problem all though state education.

Oliver: Not just online. So the Republicans suggested an audit of K-12 in general, not just on-line schools?

Acree: You bet. I made a substitute motion to expand the audit to K-12 auditing the same issues.

Oliver: And that got defeated along a party line vote. Which is too bad.

Acree: Both measures were defeated along party line.

Oliver: Rep. Acree, I am hoping to have you on again so we can follow up on your work trying to get some transparency in the Governor’s Energy Office.

Acree: You bet. I think that is a great idea.