Tag Archives: inspector general

Fix it or Own it

By Adam Pagnucco.

Once again, the county council has expressed its displeasure at the administration of County Executive Marc Elrich. And once again, executive branch officials were invited to a Zoom thrashing that was less pleasant than most root canals. Chief Administrative Officer Rich Madaleno plays more defense now than beloved former Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby.

Right or wrong, this is turning into a regular thing.

The current object of the council’s ire is the executive branch’s administration of the county’s COVID emergency pay program. The program was first established way back in April by the executive and has continued without interference from the council since then. It is based on the erroneous notion that it was mandated in the county’s union contracts when in fact those contracts referred to emergency pay in the context of weather events. The program is bleeding the county budget by $4 million a pay period, or $100 million a calendar year, and was discovered by the inspector general to be plagued with mismanagement and inflated costs in at least one department. Unlike COVID pay programs in other jurisdictions, MoCo’s has no defined end date.

One of the more troublesome revelations from the inspector general’s report was that managers at the Department of Permitting Services deliberately violated county policy in handing out undeserved COVID pay to employees. Madaleno’s first response in the Washington Post was to characterize it as an “unfortunate mistake.” He walked that back in discussion with the council, but then his deputy chief administrative officer and the current permitting services director both told the council that it was a mistake. It was not. The inspector general said that the managers who awarded the extra pay “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.” This was not a mistake. It was insubordination.

Council Member Andrew Friedson lays out remedies for the conduct found in the inspector general’s report.

Several council members called for an independent investigation, but if the administration continues to believe that this was a mistake rather than insubordination, whether accountability occurs is an open question. Other managers are watching. So are employees who may be thinking of calling the inspector general because of issues going on in their departments. If no one is held to account, why bother?

By the way, while we are on the topic of scandals, was anyone ever disciplined for the $908,000 in overtime paid by the fire department that a whistleblower said was a “scam?”

There is more. The COVID pay program has expended tens of millions of dollars with no end in sight. The council has allowed this to fester for months while it has drained the county’s beleaguered budget. The executive branch has claimed that FEMA will reimburse it for most of this money, but the inspector general has questioned that and so has the county’s own emergency management director.

In the meantime, the county has huge needs for which this money won’t be available. For example, MCPS plans to resume some in-person instruction in January. With the county’s share of federal grant money either gone or spoken for, how will the county help MCPS pay for building improvements, personal protective equipment and any emergency pay for their employees? (The largest COVID contact tracing study to date has found that children are key spreaders of the coronavirus.) MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith has said the district “absolutely will have to hire more people” if it reopens. The county executive is asking for $3 million for HVAC improvements in seven schools but MCPS has more than 200 schools. That’s not going to be enough.

County spending is within the purview of the county council. If the council is dissatisfied with the executive branch’s management of it, the council must step in. The council may not be able to do much about money that has already been spent, but it can pass legislation governing it in the future. Such legislation should define emergency pay, specify who gets it and who does not, set its levels, specify the conditions under which it is paid, establish an approval process, establish a fixed duration with a possible extension process and mandate regular reporting. If county managers refuse to obey their chief administrative officer, let’s see if they will refuse to obey county law. More than that, let’s see if county leaders can reestablish respect for taxpayer funds rather than allowing them to be treated as “other people’s money.”

Complain all you want about this, council members. But in the end, if you think it’s a problem, you must fix it. Or own it.

Share

Council Outraged at COVID Pay Scandal

By Adam Pagnucco.

The county council has released a statement expressing outrage at the COVID pay scandal, which was uncovered by the county’s inspector general today. The statement appears below.

*****

Council calls for immediate Executive action to stop improper differential pay and an independent investigation across Montgomery County Government

ROCKVILLE, Md., Nov. 6, 2020—Today the Office of the Inspector General issued a Report of Investigation revealing that Department of Permitting Services inspectors improperly received COVID-19 differential pay. The Council will have an oversight meeting about this issue on Tuesday, Nov. 10 with Inspector General Megan Limarzi and Chief Administrative Officer Rich Madaleno. The Council made the following statement about the report.

The Council is outraged by the differential pay issues identified in the Department of Permitting Services by the Office of the Inspector General. We are calling for an independent investigation across all Montgomery County Government departments and immediate action by County Executive Elrich to stop improper differential pay. Every dollar that was improperly paid needs to be recovered immediately, and those who committed these egregious acts must be held accountable.

The Council thanks those who reported their concerns to the Office of the Inspector General. We also appreciate the ongoing diligent work of Inspector General Limarzi and her team to provide objective oversight and protect the integrity of county government operations and programs. The Council will continue to take legislative and budget action to empower the Office of the Inspector General with the resources needed to protect our taxpayers.

#

Share

Scandal: County Employees Got COVID Pay They Were Not Entitled to Get

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.

Share

Complaints to Inspector General Up 92% in FY20

By Adam Pagnucco.

MoCo Inspector General (IG) Megan Davey Limarzi has released her office’s annual report for Fiscal Year 2020 and it’s a doozy. The prior year was a very busy one for her and her staff!

The headline from her report is an obvious one – the phenomenal rise in complaints in FY20, the first full year of the new administration. The IG wrote, “We received 165 complaints in FY2020. This represents a 92% increase from FY2019.” The IG noted that her office’s authority was extended to the Housing Opportunities Commission and Montgomery College in October 2019 but she does not credit that for the rise in complaints. Instead, she said, “We attribute the increase in complaints to expanded outreach efforts and the perceived effectiveness of our reviews and investigations.”

This chart in the IG’s report shows skyrocketing complaints in the most recent fiscal year.

The report summarizes numerous IG reports, including some that have already attracted press coverage: the overtime “scam” in the fire department, the report on former Chief Administrative Officer Andrew Kleine’s ethics violations and the report about MCPS’s bus camera contract.

Two additional reports stand out. The first concerns the county’s Office of Human Resources (OHR). The IG wrote:

We initiated a review based on numerous complaints alleging improper practices within the Office of Human Resources (OHR), including internal hiring processes, assignment of employee salaries and use of contractors.

We found that OHR did not follow normal competitive procurement processes when they awarded four contracts to one individual in an apparent attempt at splitting purchases to avoid contracting thresholds. In total, OHR made $184,900 in payments to the individual or a company they controlled. To facilitate some of the payments, OHR inappropriately used the “exempt” commodity code associated with collective bargaining, falsely indicating that County procurement requirements did not apply.

The second concerns the Department of Health and Human Services. The IG wrote:

The OIG conducted an investigation based on a complaint alleging a Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) manager misused Recovery Oriented Systems of Care (ROSC) grant funds resulting in a referral to the State’s Attorney’s Office. Through our investigation, we found evidence that the County DHHS manager engaged in a clear pattern of mismanagement and violations of County procurement regulations regarding the management of ROSC funds.

Was anyone disciplined for these violations?

The IG’s office, part of the legacy of former Council Member and former County Executive Ike Leggett, is one of the most valuable offices in MoCo government. With ten thousand people working for the county, there is bound to be some mischief going on and taxpayers deserve to know about it. That said, since the office has been around for more than 20 years and is therefore known to many county employees, it’s an open question as to whether expanded outreach alone is responsible for the astounding eruption in complaints last year. The county council should ask the executive branch why complaints to the IG have exploded under its watch.

Share