Election 2018GovernorLegislatureNews

Senate Democrats wants audit of Stapleton-run Payback program

Author: Joey Bunch - July 26, 2018 - Updated: August 9, 2018

Walker StapletonWalker Stapleton accepts the Republican nomination for governor on June 26 in Greenwood Village. (Photo by Joey Bunch/Colorado Politics)

Monday it was House Democrats calling on Republican gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton to answer for the tardiness they perceived in his work as state treasurer.

Now three Senate Democrats are asking the Legislative Audit Committee to take a closer look at the “Great Colorado Payback,” run by the treasurer’s office. The program urges people to see if they have lost or forgotten money or assets in the state’s possession, then reunites them.

Sens. Andy Kerr of Lakewood, Rhonda Fields of Aurora and Kerry Donovan of Vail sent a letter to the committee this week citing a March 2017 story on Denver TV station KCNC-CBS4 reporting that payments were sometimes delayed and the office was slow to respond to municipalities and individuals, generating scores of complaints.

Stapleton acknowledged problems with the program last year. His office told Colorado Politics on Thursday that there already is a standard financial and performance audits scheduled.

“During Walker’s tenure, the Unclaimed Property Office has processed more claims and returned more money to taxpayers than any state treasurer in Colorado history,” said Rachel George, a spokeswoman for the treasurer’s office. “He has given back $192.5 million to taxpayers through this program, which accounts for 50 percent of the total amount returned since it was put in place in 1989.

“The number of claims has grown exponentially in recent years,” George added, “because Walker has been so successfully at getting the word out about this program, just last year the office received over 137,000 claims that are managed by a small staff of 14 — only seven of which have the authority to approve claims.”

She added, “To handle this volume as efficiently as possible, the Unclaimed Property office has been working hard to streamline its processes. They transitioned to a paperless system and have implemented policy changes that hold staff accountable for performance.”

The senators requesting the audit acknowledged that their interest was the result of a complaint by Democratic members of the Capital Development Committee. Though the treasurer’s office has the entire fiscal year to being selling nearly $2 billion in lease-purchase agreements with the state, they could have been sold as early as July 1.

“This delay, combined with the ongoing issues with the Great Colorado Payback program, creates a pattern of delayed payments to the citizens of Colorado,” Kerr, Fields and Donovan wrote. “In both cases, the Department of the Treasury has only responded to concerns after facing increased pressure and scrutiny from lawmakers and the media, and in both cases, the responses have highlighted that a priority of prompt disbursement of financial resources is not built into the Department’s systems.”

The senators alleged that “the promised fixes of the Great Colorado Payback program have not been implemented in a manner that has
eliminated complaints of delay. And, in the case of Senate Bill 17-267, the delays may even cause increases in construction costs that devalue the public investment authorized by the legislation. This is not good government, and clearly signifies a department that needs to be held accountable for improving their policies and internal procedures. The treasurer’s office must answer for its dysfunctionality in executing state programs and legislative directives. This audit should seek to determine the root causes of delays and inefficiency of disbursements by Treasurer Stapleton’s office, and should seek to assure Coloradans that the Colorado Department of the Treasury is operating with integrity and earnestness when handling Coloradans’ finances.”

Democrats are seeking to build a political narrative that Stapleton is a poor treasurer and unfit to be governor, to the benefit of Democratic nominee Jared Polis.

The committee is made up of four Democrats, including Fields, and four Republicans. Its next meeting is Aug. 13.

The rules of the Legislative Audit Committee say “any member of the General Assembly or the governor may request the committee to direct a special audit of any department, institution or agency.”

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.