coal mineA new report says sloppy bookkeeping by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is allowing scofflaws to avoid paying fines -- particularly if they're patient.

An audit conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Inspector General found that the MSHA did not have "an accurate view" of the amount and age of its uncollected civil penalties.

The agency, according to the report, failed to:
apply payments against outstanding debt of violators
refer delinquent debt to Treasury in a timely manner
identify potential scofflaw violators
ensure that penalties were uncollectable before writing off the debt.

In January 2008, MSHA reported that it had erroneously not assessed a civil penalty for more than 5,000 violations that it had issued between January 1995 and July 2006.

MSHA could not assess a civil penalty for 97 percent of the violations because the 5-year statute of limitations had run out.

Blaming the problems primarily on ineffective monitoring by management, the MSHA said it had taken steps to ensure that it will assess all fines in a timely manner.