How is it that an award-winning, well-managed county like Fairfax could find itself with a Department of Cable Communications and Consumer Protection misusing tax dollars from the very people they are charged to protect?
According to the June 20 article in The Washington Post, the county Board of Supervisors attribute this fiasco to poor oversight and the failure of the county to provide a mechanism for employees to report such abuses.
Is it surprising that the county's 12 internal audit employees, one external auditor and County Executive Anthony H. Griffin had no idea such abuse and, yes, fraud was going on for years? It should not be!
In just the recent past, there are several examples of embezzlements by county workers at other agencies that went undetected for years. In 2002, a financial manager pleaded guilty to embezzling $1 million from the police retirement fund, and another employee bilked the county's investment portfolio for three years before the approximately $1.7 million loss was discovered in 2000. Indeed, the school system also has had its share of employee fraud. These and numerous other examples were found by chance.
The problem is there is no independent authority to root out waste, fraud or abuse. Why? All the internal auditors take marching orders from the county executive, and the external auditor works on reports directed by the Board of Supervisors. In essence, the auditors have no independence.
During the campaign for chairman of the Board of Supervisors last fall, I raised the issue of implementing more oversight for a county as large as Fairfax, with 11,500 employees, 43 main departments, countless sub-departments and a $2.7 billion budget. I pledged to create an independent inspector general position with the ability to freely investigate waste, fraud and abuse in departments. Independence is vital to the position so that neither the county executive nor the Board of Supervisors could prevent or prohibit the inspector general from conducting an audit or investigation.
However, Gerald E. Connolly (D), now chairman of the board, denounced my plan last fall, saying it would only add to the bureaucracy. He stated that Fairfax County had won awards for being well run and did not need additional oversight, and that a tip line was in place for employees who wished to complain about abuses.
Well, neither the awards nor the tip line saved our taxpayer dollars from years of fraud and abuse in the very department charged with protecting Fairfax County consumers. As for adding to the bureaucracy, the cost of the inspector general position would have probably been recouped in just this one example of agency abuse.
Sadly, we will probably never know the full cost of the abuse because Griffin refuses to release the internal audit he ordered to be conducted after finally being alerted to the chaos. Griffin claims it is a private "working paper" and not a public document. Yet, the money wasted was public money. The public has a right to know what occurred!
What actions did Griffin take once he knew the full extent of the problem? According to The Post, Griffin permitted Ronald B. Mallard, director of the group, to retire in May, no doubt with full benefits intact. However, Mallard spent our tax dollars to travel widely, including 26 out-of-town trips from 1999 to 2003. He often stayed at resort hotels, one last fall costing $344 a night. He co-founded a private company on the side, which mediates disputes between cable companies and regulators. And unfortunately for taxpayers, he used county time to conduct private business.
Griffin fired the finance director for running her own tax business out of her office and using a county employee to baby-sit on the county dime. Additionally, two other employees were stripped of supervisory powers and demoted for time and attendance fraud and violating county policies for attending a conference in the District and staying at a swank hotel on the taxpayer dollar. However, and notwithstanding these abuses, these employees will continue work for the county -- in different agencies -- but at the same salaries of $93,452 and $68,874. Lastly, another supervisor was demoted for spending almost $7,000 on office furniture and for poor management skills, but he too will retain his $94,500 salary.
One can question Griffin's judgments on the penalties imposed. Personally, I believe that his remedial actions were too lenient. One can also question Griffin's hands-off management style that allowed this situation to persist for so long. Clearly, the board should be asking how many other agencies may be affected by similar abuse.
However, the overarching problem to be resolved is providing greater oversight to deter and prevent any other fraud and abuse in the future.
The board should immediately move to create an inspector general position. Moreover, the inspector general must be given the unrestricted and independent ability to inspect and investigate wherever he/she deems appropriate, and must report its findings to the entire board. The position should also be charged with implementing safeguards to prevent future abuse.
The failure of the Board of Supervisors to act on this matter will probably lead to future abuses of the taxpayer's money and additional scandals.
The recent problems at the county's Department of Cable Communications and Consumer Protection ["Fairfax Consumer Division in Turmoil," Metro, June 20] prompted a response from Mychele B. Brickner, who served eight years on the county School Board and was the Republican nominee for chairman of the Board of Supervisors last fall.