Gasoline Depots At Risk Of Fraud

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 27, 2008

Prince George's auditors say lax oversight at the county's 20 fuel depots has left the government open to fraud, abuse and the possible theft of costly gasoline.

The County Council's auditors conclude in a report released this week that an override code designed to allow public safety officers to fill up county vehicles in case of emergency was used more than 9,500 times by employees in multiple departments in 2007. Ten employees used the code more than 100 times each.

During a physical check of the depots, auditors found that that in almost 30 percent of observed transactions, people filling up vehicles entered identification numbers that were not assigned to them.

They also found that 76 employee identification numbers used to get gas in 2007 were assigned to people who no longer worked for the county. Thirty identification numbers were each used to obtain more than 5,500 gallons last year; one of those numbers was used to get 123,179 gallons.

The report also found that physical security at depots is too loose.

"Inadequate monitoring of the system provides for poor controls over the use of the system, reduces management's ability to detect misuse of the system, and the ability to easily monitor and track system usage and activities," the auditors wrote.

Employees are allowed to use the centralized depots to fill up county vehicles. Some of the system's heaviest users included police officers and maintenance vehicle drivers, but many office employees also drive county vehicles and are allowed to use county pumps, which dispense 4.4 million gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel each year. The depots are designed to help the county save money on fuel by buying in bulk.

To pump gas, employees must enter a personal identification number, the identifying number of the vehicle they are filling and the vehicle's odometer reading. The system is designed to pump gas normally only if the odometer reading reasonably matches past readings entered for that particular vehicle.

In a written response and an interview yesterday, county managers said they largely agreed with the report's recommendations for stricter controls, some of which they said they have already adopted. For instance, they have discontinued the use of the emergency override, which allowed employees to submit their odometer reading as 999,999 and automatically get gas.

In the past few months, they said, the database of employee identification numbers has been culled, improving the accuracy of the list. Workers who once used a common code assigned to them by a superior have now been assigned their own numbers to better track usage. Cameras are also being installed at some depots. And, since May, there has been a monthly check of employees who are particularly heavy users.

"The potential for theft to occur has been decreased by the controls we've added on," said Floyd Holt, deputy director of the Office of Central Services.

The county officials said they did not believe that the report indicates widespread theft but instead shows outdated practices and technology that have left the county open to the potential of fraud. They said they suspected that employees who used the override code, for instance, did so largely to save time. Most of the system's heaviest users obtained fuel for legitimate purposes, they said, including workers assigned to fill up 80 county buses each night.

Richard G. Hilmer, who was hired a year ago as fleet administrator with a mandate to modernize the system, said the county is updating administrative procedures and producing new reports to ensure more fuel-usage checks.

"A lot of these issues were things maybe we were addressing or recognizing as potentially as problems," he said. "But having a different set of eyes . . . That's refreshing on our side of the fence."

A similar report in Fairfax County in 2006 found many of the same problems with fuel dispensing there. Fairfax officials tightened controls, which they said achieved substantial savings.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company