In a time when regulators and constituents are growing increasingly concerned with municipal fraud, abuse, waste and inefficiencies, developing a well-designed, effective internal control system is key for municipalities to curb these issues. In this study, the relationship between municipal elections and internal control weaknesses is examined. As elections have been shown to improve public officials’ performance via accountability, appropriate use of elections is expected to have a pivotal effect on a municipality, ultimately impacting the operating effectiveness of the internal control system. Two election variables – election of the Finance official and use of term limits for City Council and the mayor – are evaluated to determine if a relationship with the prevalence of internal control weaknesses reported exists. The contribution of this study is the finding that both the use of term limits and election of the Finance official are associated with fewer instances of internal control weaknesses, implying that these election policies have a meaningful effect on governance quality, impacting the effectiveness of internal controls.
In recent years in the public sector, measures have increased to curb municipal waste, misuse of funds, abuse of power and fraud. Regulators are increasingly concerned with the quality of financial reporting and disclosure in the public sector, largely in part due to recent instances of municipal securities fraud. In 2014, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) created the Municipalities Continuing Disclosure Cooperation (MCDC) Initiative, which was an initiative to encourage municipal securities issuers to self-report violations of securities laws in exchange for reduced sanctions (SEC, 2014). In 2016, under this initiative, the SEC charged 71 municipal bond issuers with violations, finding that from 2011 to 2014 these issuers sold bonds with offering statements containing falsified statements or omissions about their compliance with continuing disclosure obligations (SEC, 2016). Also in 2016, federal prosecutors indicted the town supervisor of Ramapo, NY on 22 counts of securities fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy, which involved falsified accounting entries and misappropriation of funds (DOJ, 2016). These charges are believed to be the first criminal municipal securities charges brought against public officials. In addition to the regulatory spotlight recently shone on municipal securities fraud, taxpayers are growing increasingly concerned with reducing fraud, abuse and waste of taxpayer funds, along with improving efficiency of city resources. In 2012, the largest municipal fraud in U.S. history came to light, which involved the comptroller/treasurer of Dixon, IL, Rita Crudwell, embezzling $53.7 million over her 29 years in office by diverting funds from Illinois tax-sharing programs to her personal bank accounts (Pope, 2013). This fraud was discovered because of a city employee whistle-blower. A simple internet search for “city misuse of funds” brings up more than a dozen instances over the last year alone currently being investigated across the country. A well-designed, effective internal control system should mitigate some of these aforementioned issues. While internal controls alone cannot ensure fraud will not occur, a well-designed system will make these occurrences much more difficult to achieve. The internal control system also helps to safeguard assets and promote efficient operations, accuracy and reliability of financial reporting, and compliance with applicable laws and regulations (Thomson, 2015). The internal controls should be designed for these purposes and operating effectively in order to meet these objectives. A poorly designed or ineffective internal control system creates an environment with greater potential for inefficiencies, waste, misuse of funds, abuse of power and even fraud, in the worst case scenarios. Internal control weaknesses can signal instances of these issues within a city government.