Clarification to This Article
A Nov. 30 Metro article said that Fairfax County was on track to save almost 75,000 gallons of fuel since imposing new controls over employees' use of county pumps. Using more recent information, however, the county changed its estimate and now says it is on pace to save almost 34,000 gallons over a year-long period that began in June.

Widespread County Fuel Thefts Suspected in Fairfax

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 30, 2006

They sometimes filled up their tanks in the dead of night, keying in a generic code at any of dozens of Fairfax County fuel pumps, then sticking the nozzle into the tanks of their personal cars or into drums to bring home for snowblowers or lawn mowers.

The county's auditor and several county supervisors say they suspect the abuse of fuel pumps by employees assigned government cars went on for years. They are uncertain how many workers were involved -- it could have been hundreds -- or how much fuel was stolen, inflating a monthly fuel bill that has doubled in three years because of rising prices.

But in a report that the Board of Supervisors is scheduled to receive Monday, the county is getting a handle on the scope of the fraud with help from new controls. The county auditor will report that the Fairfax fleet is on track to use close to 75,000 gallons less this year than last, and officials suspect that most of that amount was stolen.

"It was people playing games," said Supervisor Elaine N. McConnell (R-Springfield). "It was going on forever. I don't think anybody had checked on it before."

The most egregious case officials know of involved a worker in the Department of Facilities Management who was stealing diesel fuel and gasoline for more than two years. Fairfax police staked out Bryan Coup after investigating him for several months. They caught him filling up the tank of his county car one night last January and then putting diesel into large drums.

Police followed him to his home in Shady Side, where he planned to use the diesel to heat his home, officials said. Coup, 36, was fired, and he was found guilty of embezzlement in August. He made restitution for hundreds of gallons of stolen fuel, auditor John Adair said. Another employee was charged with stealing fuel, although Adair and police officials could not provide details.

The projected fuel savings in the report represent 1.87 percent of the 3.9 million gallons of fuel consumed each year by the county's fleet of 3,500 cars and trucks, including police and fire vehicles and those used by homeless-outreach and park workers. But fuel consumption started to drop as soon as the county made it harder for employees to fill up their government cars.

"Month by month, the savings are all over the place," across numerous agencies, Adair said. At first, he said, he thought that the drop might be explained by fuel conservation, but now he suspects it's the crackdown on fraud.

With about 1,300 cars, the Police Department has the largest agency fleet. But spokeswoman Mary Anne Jennings said that the large number of cars does not prove any abuse.

"I'm failing to see the connections," Jennings said. "I have not heard of any issues within the Police Department of anyone using gas for personal use."

Board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said a drop in fuel consumption by police could be a result of an effort by Chief David M. Rohrer to reduce the number of take-home cars in the department.

The possibility that employees were stealing fuel came to the attention of the board's audit committee last spring, when gas prices hit $3 a gallon. Coup and the other employee had been arrested, and some officials suspected fraud at the pump. "We wanted to be sure no one was yielding to temptation," Connolly said.

The system was open to abuse. To fill up at the 47 county pumps, employees with county cars were supposed to punch in a vehicle number, an agency number and an odometer reading. But a "miscellaneous" code could be used to obtain fuel for other equipment or if there was a problem using the code assigned to a car.

Operators of dozens, if not hundreds, of cars in each agency knew the miscellaneous code, and its use grew to 352,000 gallons in fiscal 2006, according to a September audit on the fuel program. An employee using the code could get fuel without creating a record.

Now an employee has to punch in a number that identifies the car and the employee, and the county tracks the day and the time. Only a select group of employees can use the miscellaneous code.

"The good news for taxpayers is that we're effectuating a significant saving and reversing a trend of ever-increasing fuel consumption," Connolly said. The savings this year are estimated at $184,000.

Jim Gorby, the head of the county's Department of Vehicle Services, expressed concerns about fraud as far back as 2003, when he instituted a limit of three gallons for cars using the "miscellaneous" code. However, thousands of police and fire vehicles were exempted from the limit, and the code could be typed in repeatedly, Adair said.

"Now," he said, "we at least know who's taking what fuel and when."

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