North Riverside Mayor Joseph Mengoni announced during the Feb. 20 village board meeting that he would “squash” calls for a “forensic audit” of village finances being pushed by Trustee Marybelle Mandel, who is running for re-election in April, and her surrogates on social media.
The calls for such an audit on social media generally cite spending decisions made in the past by various village boards, from hiring practices and salaries to the purchase of land at 24th Street and 8th Avenue, to a now-discontinued practice of underfunding pension obligations.
Forensic audits are conducted to uncover evidence of financial crimes, such as embezzlement, to long-term professional services contracts.
The village’s financial statements are audited annually by a third-party auditor and no suspicion of criminal activity has ever been leveled against North Riverside officials.
“The village has a comprehensive structure of internal controls in place that has been discussed and adopted by the board and is the subject of annual reviews by the auditor,” said Mengoni, reading from prepared remarks during his mayoral report at the Feb. 20 village board meeting.
He also addressed Mandel directly, asking her to provide specific evidence of “any misconduct for this board to review immediately.”
“Without any evidence of misconduct, this board will not consider any further action on this matter,” Mengoni added, handing over to Mandel a folder containing a decade’s worth of the village auditor’s management letters from North Riverside’s annual finance reports, which are mandated by law.
Mandel declined to offer any evidence of criminal activity on the part of any elected officials or employees, instead saying her support for a forensic audit was based on concerns she was hearing from residents.
“I’m not accusing anyone of anything,” Mandel said. “I’m just saying that I’m speaking on behalf of the residents. … The residents want to be more transparent with the government here.”
Mengoni said the village’s annual financial audits were available on the North Riverside municipal website, which includes reports dating back to 2005.
Mandel gave as an example a forensic audit underway in the village of Westchester. In that particular case, the Westchester Village Board last June voted to engage a firm to conduct the audit following the sudden, unexplained resignation of its village manager amid questions over a major municipal construction project.
The Westchester Village Board hired StoneTurn Group LLP to conduct the forensic audit at a rate of $415 per hour. There was no cap on the amount of money the village would spend on the audit.
As of Feb. 21, StoneTurn Group had invoiced the village $50,420 for forensic auditing services, according to information contained in village board meeting packets on the Westchester website.
Asked if she knew why Westchester had initiated the forensic audit, Mandel responded that she had heard “multiple reasons.” She said she favored a forensic audit in North Riverside “if we have nothing to hide and want to be transparent.”
She also intimated that residents didn’t trust the village’s financial statements because North Riverside had hired Lauterbach & Amen, its independent auditor for at least two decades, on a contract basis in September 2021 to perform accounting services for the village. At the time, the village’s finance director position was vacant.
Lauterbach & Amen submitted the lowest of three cost proposals for the work, village board Finance Chair Terri Sarro noted at that time, adding that no one assigned the accounting duties would be involved in the audit of village finances.
“You have no idea what auditing entails,” Mengoni told Mandel.