After False Start, Marines Aim to Be First Service to Pass Audit

U.S. Marines move toward targets on a Light Armored Vehicle dry fire range in Hokudaien, Japan, on Aug. 13th, 2017. The Marine Corps must account for all its equipment worldwide in a first-ever full financial audit. Lance Cpl. Charles Plouffe/Marine Corps
U.S. Marines move toward targets on a Light Armored Vehicle dry fire range in Hokudaien, Japan, on Aug. 13th, 2017. The Marine Corps must account for all its equipment worldwide in a first-ever full financial audit. Lance Cpl. Charles Plouffe/Marine Corps

The Marine Corps has more than $50 billion in assets worldwide. And in theory, the service should be able to produce a paper trail and accounting entries for every armored vehicle and rifle round in its inventory.

The only catch? It's never been done before.

This year, the Marine Corps became the first military service within the Defense Department ever to undergo a full financial statement audit, a mammoth task involving the assessment of more than 4,300 sample items and 31,000 documents.

Before the end of 2017, service leadership will know if they have a historic clean result.

And in the meantime, Marine Corps officials are working behind the scenes to re-orient the culture of the Corps and make warfighters care about accounting.

"From a commander's perspective, from a Marine Corps perspective, what that really manifests in is opportunity," Ann-Cecile McDermott, assistant deputy commandant for Programs and Resources and fiscal director of the Marine Corps, told Military.com in an interview at the Pentagon. " ... All of those things that we buy and those things that we do, training, et cetera, that has that direct warfighter readiness impact. And so it's important to the commander, important to the Marine Corps as far as making sure we're ready."

To get a sense of what's at stake, consider the short-lived fanfare following the Defense Department Inspector General's announcement in late 2013 that the Corps had passed a limited financial audit.

Then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel reserved the Hall of Heroes at the Pentagon for a ceremony in which he presented the assistant commandant with a massive framed display honoring the milestone.

"I know that it might seem a bit unusual to be in the Hall of Heroes to honor a bookkeeping accomplishment but, damn, this is an accomplishment," Hagel said, according to Reuters accounts.

And, had the clean report lasted, it would have been: The Defense Department is the only federal entity that has never complied with a 1992 directive to undergo regular audits, a fact that has stoked decades of outrage on Capitol Hill and led to numerous accounts of military waste, inefficiency and opacity in accounting.

The victory was short-lived, however. In early 2015, the IG revoked its clean audit opinion, citing Marine Corps suspense accounts within the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, or DFAS, that had not been properly assessed or accounted for.

McDermott called the decision a disappointment, but said it didn't evaluate the work of Marine Corps financial management officials who at that point were moving forward with preparation for future audits.

"At the end of the day, what I explained to our team was, the work that had been done for our audit, and all the reviews answering all the questions, and the sample items, all of that was still valid, and all of the improvements we were working, all of that was still valid," McDermott said. "The real question was, should there have been more sample items that were tested, and were they material?"

Starting Over

McDermott said she believes the problems that led to the audit about-face in 2015 have been resolved. The IG conducted a follow-on review of DFAS suspense accounts, and the agency has since enhanced its own accountability processes. McDermott said Marine officials now participate in a monthly accountability meeting with DFAS officials to ensure key issues are being discussed.

On top of that, the private accounting firm executing the audit is also new. Grant Thornton, which came under scrutiny for how it conducted the Corps' previous audit, has been replaced by Kearney and Company, P.C., which specializes in federal government accounting.

"The Department of Defense Office of Inspector General has been overseeing the work of the independent public accounting firm, and believe that their procedures are sufficient and appropriate," Bruce Anderson, a spokesman for the IG, told Military.com. "The audit is on schedule to be publicly released later this year."

But if the processes are better this time around, the task is larger as well. While the previous audit assessed Marine Corps dollars and accounts, this first full financial statement audit accounts for everything the Corps owns -- down to grenades and ballistic undergarments.

For this year's mammoth accounting project, Marine officials have been dispatched across the globe to review receipts and records, and sometimes count gear. The "samples" are pulled randomly by the accounting company, and could be anywhere in the world.

"In our '12 audit, we literally had to go to Afghanistan to get a receiving report for an asset that was delivered that just happened to pop on the sample," McDermott said.

To date, this audit has involved 13 site visits to various Marine Corps installations and sites that support service-related activities, and another 479 business process overviews and walkthroughs with accounting personnel.

While the scope of the project is daunting, the Marine Corps likely has key advantages over the other DoD services as it seeks a clean audit opinion.

For one thing, it uses a single networked accounting system, known as SABRS, while other services have struggled to reconcile accounts on multiple outdated systems that don't always communicate.

'Flushing the Quail'

For another, it's the smallest of the services by personnel, with roughly 185,000 troops, and has a comparatively modest budget as a result -- anywhere from $25 billion to $28 billion, including base budget and warfighting funding.

The Army's annual budget is roughly five times that size, and its financial scandals are larger too.

A report released last year by the DoD IG found Army accountants made $2.8 trillion in bad adjustments in a single quarter of 2015 in order to make the books balance, a common accounting technique within DoD.

Findings such as this raise grave questions as to whether the Army and the other services will even be able to meet a Sept. 30 deadline to declare audit readiness.

This year's process has also revealed gaps in the Marine Corps' processes. For example, McDermott said, it was discovered earlier this year that there was no general ledger account for ammunition that was purchased pre-assembled, then built before being delivered to appropriate units.

"When it takes a long time to assemble the ammunition for some certain classes, just the 'in progress' line, there was not an accounting of it," she said. "Because again, you paid for the ammo and then we make sure we get the ammo that we paid for. From the accounting perspective ... you should be recording where are you as they are progressing on making that."

McDermott noted she's aware that all eyes are on the Corps as it undergoes the full financial statement audit.

"Part of what we are doing as a Marine Corps, I call it 'flushing the quail' for everybody else," she said.

Long-Range Goals

The Corps' audit is set to be complete by mid-November, with a report and finding expected in late November or early December.

So, can the Marine Corps pull off a clean audit this year? McDermott is cautious to predict an outcome.

"As far as the clean opinion, it's going to take a while before anybody is routinely getting that," she said. "...The way we are looking at it is, success for us is identifying what are those improvement areas and keeping after them. Because every line in the general ledger before we make it through and all of that being clean, it's going to take a while."

But as the service has worked to complete its audit, McDermott and others are also laying the groundwork for better financial practices across the service. In conversations and informal training events with unit commanders, she said she has highlighted accounting best practices, such as having two people involved in any part of the process.

"That can be a challenge depending on what's the manning of an organization, what's going on," she said.

Topics related to the audit are also a recent addition at new commanders' courses, and McDermott said she has noticed an increase in interest from key leaders.

"From the commanders, four- and three-star level, [we get] questions about how's the audit going, what are we finding, what are we focusing on, different things," she said.

And that key insight connection, that good accounting aids warfighting, is making an impact.

"Our commanders, they are looking at the audit impact and going, 'OK, we can streamline, we can do this better.' And then they say, it's also going to help me with audit, so you know it's changing the way people are thinking about things," she said.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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