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Audit finds $24,375 in overpayments to Walt Whitman association

Poet Walt Whitman's birthplace in Huntington Station is

Poet Walt Whitman's birthplace in Huntington Station is a state historic site and museum. Credit: David L. Pokress

A Suffolk County audit has found $24,375 in overpayments to the nonprofit Walt Whitman Birthplace Association that operates the state historic site in Huntington Station honoring the poet.

County Comptroller John Kennedy disallowed $12,000 in pay that the audit found was used for grant writing and fundraising. He also disallowed $3,500 in curator fees because there was no executed contract or vouchers that detailed the work to be done.

The audit for the year 2015 reviewed $138,789 in hotel/motel room taxes the association receives under a county contract. That makes up about half the museum’s annual operating revenues. The group receives 1.8 percent of Suffolk’s room tax to help run the site.

The association’s board, in a written response to the preliminary audit, acknowledged errors totaling $2,320, and agreed to make “good faith improvements.”

But William T. Walter, board president, said, “We dispute many of the assertions and findings in the audit, we are reviewing documents and will respond to the appropriate parties at the appropriate time.”

Kennedy said he would give the group 30 days to develop a repayment plan. He said his office could reduce future hotel/motel room tax payments if there’s no agreement.

“My job is to make sure that the money is not pitched down the drain pipe,” Kennedy said.

The $12,000 salary payment that the audit disallowed was first granted in 2013 to the Whitman association’s executive director, Cynthia Shor. Auditors said the payment was “specifically intended for grant writing and fundraising,” which is not authorized under the county contract that’s limited to funding museum programs. The audit also found Shor failed to file time sheets.

The Whitman board says it does the fundraising, not Shor. She got the additional pay, which brought her annual salary to $59,730, to expand her work schedule from two days a week to three, according to the board.

The board also said the executive director puts in extra hours at night and on weekends and her contract did not require her to file time sheets.

But the audit said IRS forms reported the executive director had expenses related to fundraising from 2013 to 2016, ranging from $8,700 to $8,951 a year. Whitman officials say they are amending the 2015 tax forms to show Shor had no fundraising expenses.

The audit also disallowed $3,500 in expenses for the museum’s curator Richard Ryan.

Auditors said the nonprofit could not provide a consultant services agreement outlining services to be rendered. Handwritten invoices given to auditors “lacked details of services provided,” the audit said. The board said the curator does have a contract, dating to 2010, detailing his duties and handwritten vouchers were accepted by the county executive office for years.

Assemb. Steven Englebright (D-Setauket) who sponsored state funding for the Whitman site, said Whitman’s birthplace is a tourist magnet that helps the economy and “opens a window to the early years of a truly great American.” He said he hoped both sides can “work out their differences . . . We all serve the same public.”

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