Planning agency makes car audit public

An influential regional planning authority in Maryland had an unusually high number of vehicles, and the reasons some employees were allowed to take them home are unclear, according to an audit released Thursday.

The Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission failed to secure its gas stations, leaving open the possibility that unauthorized personnel could fill up for free, the audit found.

Commission officials initially refused to make the full report available, but changed course late Thursday after they were pressured by Montgomery and Prince George’s County Council members, who oversee the $420 million agency.

The audit was one of several in recent years probing the operations of the commission and top officials’ spending. After the audits, Abinet Y. Belachew, the agency’s chief auditor, was demoted and his $124,000 salary was cut by more than $30,000. He is on leave, officials said.

Council members have questioned whether the critical audits led to his demotion and pay cuts. The commission has declined to discuss what it said is an internal personnel matter.

The Washington Post requested the audit in September, but was given a highly redacted copy and continued to seek its release.

“Nobody can figure out why it wasn’t released before,” Montgomery County Council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large) said after a closed meeting of the two councils.

Among the key findings:

●The commission, which oversees parks and planning in Montgomery and parks, recreation and planning in Prince George’s, has 1,300 vehicles, a ratio that the audit said “is very high compared to other similar organizations,” for its 2,000 employees;

●The tax liability for using a take-home car of some employees was not correctly calculated on W-2 statements for 2009.

●The commission did not adequately monitor its own gas stations. Some vehicles were not properly locked or secured.

●The reasons for having a take-home car are murky and there were “inconsistencies” in assignments.

●Necessary approvals and paperwork for possession of a take-home car are often not filled out.

Commission vice chairman Betty Hewlett, who heads the Prince George’s planning board, said after the closed session that the agency already had made many fixes to its policies and practices to address the audit’s findings.

“We take this very, very seriously,” she said. “Those things that need to be fixed immediately, we did.”

Miranda Spivack writes about government and politics in the suburbs, based in the Post’s bureau in Largo in Prince George’s County.
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