The state Department of Health Services has increased its scrutiny of a Madison-based elderly advocacy group after an audit found it had weak fiscal controls and poor documentation of travel and entertainment expenses by its director.

Another major funder was scheduled to review its financial support for Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups at a meeting Friday because of questions raised by the audit and concerns about the firing of an employee who had sharply criticized the coalition’s executive director, Nino Amato.

Amato said Thursday that the coalition would go bankrupt if the funder, Madison-based Greater Wisconsin Agency on Aging Resources, pulls a $340,000 grant.

The coalition’s troubles can be traced to a successful lobbying effort last year against Gov. Scott Walker’s plans to change a medical program for senior citizens, Amato said.

“This has all been orchestrated since we went after Governor Walker on SeniorCare,” Amato said.

Coalition lobbyists were among the elderly advocates who persuaded the Legislature to remove a budget provision they said would force 70,000 elderly to pay more for prescription drugs.

Department of Health Services officials denied any partisan motives for demanding better financial records from the coalition and accelerating the schedule for its 2012 audit.

“We need greater safeguards in place and better processes to ensure the validity of future expenditures,” Deputy Secretary Kitty Rhoades said.

A 2011 audit found “serious” lapses in record-keeping that raised concerns about Amato’s use of agency credit cards, his compensation, vacation time and expenses, according to a Sept. 30 department letter to the coalition.

“The majority of this stuff has been at least addressed, so we are kind of done,” Rhoades said, although the next annual audit is due March 31, three months earlier than usual.

The auditor, Scott Haumersen of Wegner LLP, said the number and severity of the problems found was unusual, in part because of it was an unusually detailed examination of the group’s books.

Amato said he called for a more in-depth audit because he believed there were problems.

For example, when he traveled to Melbourne, Australia, for a professional conference, he paid personally for all of his expenses because the coalition couldn’t afford the costs. However, his room reservation was made with a coalition credit card, and when the hotel charged the organization, the expenditure went unnoticed for many months, Amato said.

Amato said he reimbursed the coalition, essentially paying twice for the room, rather than fight the hotel over a few hundred dollars.

Auditors didn’t cite the specific incident, but they noted the absence of systems to ensure proper oversight of invoices and expenditures. The coalition has hired an outside firm to provide beefed-up bookkeeping, Amato said.

$1.6 million budget

The Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups has a $1.6 million annual budget, with revenue from the state, other nonprofits and private donations. It provides legal services to senior citizens in 64 counties and works to influence public policy.

Funding has decreased in recent years, and the coalition is attempting to sell the 13,600-square-foot building it built in 2000 at 2850 Dairy Drive. The property is listed at a price of $1.4 million. Amato said he wants the coalition to lease the building back from a buyer because certain grants his group receives may be spent on rent, but not for mortgage payments.

Grant may be pulled

The coalition’s financial picture could grow much gloomier if the Greater Wisconsin Agency on Aging Resources pulls a $340,000 grant when its board meets Friday.

Greater Wisconsin director Robert Kellerman wouldn’t provide details, but he said that in November he launched a “program audit” to examine operations of the coalition’s legal services program after the program director, Julie Short, was terminated. Short was fired after telling the coalition board that Amato’s management practices and spending were improper.

Short filed a discrimination complaint with the Madison Equal Opportunities Commission, which last week ruled there was probable cause that the firing was illegal and retaliatory.

Amato said she was fired for poor performance, and that her complaints about him were untrue.

Another employee, benefits specialist T. Holin Kennen, filed a retaliation complaint last week, saying Amato shouted at her and others and threatened to fire her when she expressed concern about Short’s termination. Amato said Kennen’s filing is groundless.

Amato in spotlight

Amato has long been in the public spotlight in Madison, serving on public boards and once running for mayor. He was removed from the UW Board of Regents in 2004 for publicly scolding colleagues. In 2006 the Wisconsin Industrial Energy Group relieved him of his job as president after he scorched state regulators and then-Gov. Jim Doyle by saying they were too cozy with utilities.

Amato was hired to direct the coalition in 2010. After seven months the group fired a 60-year-old employee, and she accused Amato of age discrimination. The Equal Opportunities Commission upheld her complaint, but she withdrew the charges when the agency paid her a $14,000 settlement in 2011.

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