The head of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services says he welcomes the scrutiny of a legislative committee even as he defends the department against criticism leveled by the state auditor.
DHHS CEO Kerry Winterer says he would welcome the Legislative Performance Audit Committee’s review of a program offering heating assistance to the poor, saying he has found the committee thorough, professional and fair.
Does that imply he doesn’t feel the same about State Auditor Mike Foley?
“I don’t necessary want to imply that or state that,” Winterer tells Nebraska Radio Network in a telephone interview. “However, I will tell you that our experiences with the State Auditor versus the Performance Audit office of the legislature are significantly different.”
Winterer has responded to a letter sent by Foley to Sen. John Harms, chairman of the Legislative Performance Audit Committee, suggesting the committee review how DHHS has managed the federal Low Income Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP.
Foley has criticized DHHS for returning $5.8 million to the federal government, stating the money could have been used to pay utility bills, install energy efficient windows or update furnaces.
Kerry says the Auditor seems to imply DHHS has mishandled the money. Kerry insists the money was returned, because the state had administered all the federal funds it could for the year under state guidelines. Nebraska receives approximately $20 million a year in LIHEAP funds.
Foley is a Republican running for governor. As a candidate, Foley has been harshly critical of DHHS, stating it needs wholesale, structural reform.
During a news conference on an audit of DHHS that disclosed hundreds of thousands of dollars intended for vulnerable Nebraskans had been mishandled, Foley reiterated a statement he has made before.
“I think we have to take this whole agency apart, brick by brick, and rebuild it,” Foley told reporters.
Winterer says it would be inappropriate for him to wade into politics and comment directly on what Foley said.
“Whether the department needs to be torn down brick by brick, I don’t know, that in my view may be a bit of an exaggeration,” Winterer says. “But to the extent that the Auditor has good ideas in terms of how we could go about doing our business better, we would listen to that.”
AUDIO: Brent Martin reports [:55]