By Adam Pagnucco.
MoCo Inspector General Megan Davey Limarzi, who previously uncovered an overtime scam in the fire department, has done it again. She has issued a new report detailing COVID emergency payments to employees of the Department of Permitting Services (DPS) who were not entitled to receive them under county policy. Moreover, she hints that this may be happening in other departments too. The whole thing is a massive scandal due to – at the very least – poor management in county government.
COVID emergency pay was set in three collective bargaining agreements with the police, the fire fighters and MCGEO in early April. Two categories of emergency pay were established:
Front facing onsite: work that cannot be performed by telework, involves physical interaction with the public, and cannot be performed with appropriate social distancing. This work would receive an additional $10 per hour.
Back office onsite: work that cannot be performed by telework and does not involve regular physical interaction with the public. This work would receive an additional $3 per hour.
Work performed through telework was ineligible for emergency pay.
In May, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) received complaints that DPS was allowing inspectors to receive front facing emergency pay ($10 per hour) for work performed at home. The complaints alleged that employees were “defrauding the system” and “taking advantage of undeserved hazard pay.”
That’s exactly what the OIG found was occurring in four out of five DPS divisions. The OIG wrote:
Our investigation uncovered that DPS management enacted a COVID differential pay policy that was contrary to the Administration’s policy, resulting in overpayment of front facing COVID differential pay to DPS inspectors from approximately March 29 to August 29, 2020. We also found that DPS inspection data on its website, the Data Montgomery website, and in internal records is incomplete and not entirely accurate.
The reason for the overpayments was that work performed remotely was allowed to be paid an extra $10 per hour as if it had been performed in physical interaction with the public. That violated county policy, which held that each hour of work had to be evaluated separately to determine whether it was eligible for an extra $10 per hour (front facing), $3 per hour (back office) or nothing (telework). The violation occurred because DPS management allowed it. The OIG wrote:
The former Acting DPS Director and the four Division Chiefs stated that collectively they decided to allow inspectors to claim front facing differential for their entire workday rather than ‘nickel and dime’ them by asking that they account for individual hours.
Notably, Fire Prevention and Code Enforcement inspectors correctly followed County policy and did not claim front facing differential for their entire workday. The Division Chief told us that he did not know that the former Acting Director interpreted the policy differently. He also did not know that the other divisions were allowing their inspectors to claim all their workhours as qualifying for front facing differential.
The OIG could not figure out how much of the emergency pay was ineligible under county policy. That’s because “we were not able to obtain accurate information on the number of inspections conducted by DPS inspectors, how inspections were conducted, and their duration.” The OIG did note that when DPS finally adjusted its policy to match county policy, front facing differential hours claimed fell by 27% and the number of DPS employees claiming 80 hours of front facing pay per pay period fell by 90%.
Finally, the OIG made this ominous statement. “Additionally, we found that other County departments may also be misapplying the COVID differential pay policy and possibly paying undeserving employees COVID differential pay.” The report does not present evidence to back this up but one senses that this may ultimately be only the beginning of a much larger investigation.
The OIG recommended that the executive branch review DPS and all other county departments to ensure that COVID pay was being administered in compliance with county policy. The OIG also recommended that the county not use CARES Act money or apply for FEMA reimbursements for COVID emergency pay until all payments had been verified as complying with county policy. Chief Administrative Officer Rich Madaleno replied that county departments would review the pay and follow the collective bargaining agreements and regulations which established the pay. He also said that the county would “make all appropriate adjustments” to any FEMA reimbursement requests or uses of CARES Act money.
So let’s review this astonishing report. Top management in one of the county’s most important departments was willing to disobey county policy and overcharge taxpayers rather than have work hours properly reported. Management also lacked complete or accurate records on the actual work performed by its employees. The county’s budget monitoring processes failed to catch this and it would probably still be going on if it weren’t for the OIG. The county’s ability to seek FEMA reimbursements for this pay could be endangered. (Let’s remember that the total amount of COVID emergency pay is projected to be $100 million over the course of a calendar year and currently has no fixed end date.) And the county’s response is not “heads are going to roll and we will get our money back,” but rather that they will follow regulations and collective bargaining agreements.
Who knows what will happen now, but here’s a prediction: the county council’s review of this report is going to be must-see TV. A preview appears below.