The D.C. Department of Labor is investigating charges by some trainees in a job training program that fraudulent pay vouchers were issued for people who had quit as trainees months earlier and that payroll funds for the program were improperly accounted for and grossly mismanaged.
Alarmed at what they said were delayed paychecks, payroll deception and a suspicion that they were being underpaid, the trainees have turned over to the city's Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA) office payroll documents that raise questions about whether the city was effectively monitoring CETA payments to a tourism training program that employed them.
These documents, copies of which were obtained by The Washington Post, show numerous contradictions between official payroll requisition forms - sent to the city to justify salary reimbursements - and the names and numbers of employes actually working in the program.
For example, of 15 employes who are shown as having resigned from the recently phased-out program, called Career Opportunities in Tourism, at least nine continue to turn up on subsequent pay vouchers the city used in determining how much money to send back to the program's operators.
The tourism program, set up by a nonprofit organization known as the D.C. Institute for Careers in Tourism and funded by the city through a federal CETA grant, had previously been organized under the auspices of the D.C. Bicentennial Commission before coming under the city's supervision in July 1977.
Funds for the program were mailed in one lump sum each month to the D.C. institute after the local CETA office had received the necessary payroll information.
One payroll voucher for May 1978 issued over the name of the program's director, Eric Sewell, asked the city to reimburse his firm for $18,893 to cover the salaries supposedly paid to 27 employes, including Sewell, during that month.
However, according to official letters of employe termination contained in Sewell's files, at least six of the employes listed on the voucher for that 31-day period had long ago left the program. Some of them had quit as early as September 1977.
In another payroll inconsistency, Sewell's collection of employe termination letters contained two -dated months apart - that were written to acknowledge the resignation of one employe.
That trainee, Edmond Robbins Jr., said in a recent interview that he quit his CETA job in September 1977 after learning that he would be receiving $500 less a year than he had expected when he joined the program.
In acknowledging Robbins' resignation, Sewell wrote him that he had "received the wrong letter which indicated that your starting salary would be $9,000" instead of $8,500.
Robbins said he collected his final paycheck a week or two later, found another job, and had nothing further to do with the program. He said he never received a second termination letter from Sewell, although one was written in APril 1978.
Yet, despite Robbins' resignation, pay vouchers submitted to the city by Sewell's office list Robbins as an employe as last as the month of the second termination letter.
In the second letter to Robbins, written as though the first termination letter doesn't exist, Sewell wrote, ". . . We have not heard from you and I hear through the grapevine that you found other employment."
Another trainee, mattie Love, is shown as having resigned twice, according to letters in Sewell's files - once in December 1977 and again in April 1978. She, too, was listed on pay vouchers after her resignation.
Sewell has said he does not recall writing the second letters even thought they went out on his stationery. He accused those employes who complained to the city of being "disgruntled people" who are unhappy because the program ended Oct. 21 and "are projecting all their frustration on me."
Sewell has said that the money from CETA never exceeded what the program was entitled to receive because employes who resigned were always replaced with new ones. In addition, he says that his program's accountants incorrectly copied requisition forms from outdated lists of employes.
"The number of people alwasy matched the number on the payroll, but the names were not correlated," he said, an explanation that has been disputed by the accountants and other employes.
The program itself has been well received by city hotels, where the CETA trainees were placed as tourist information specialists to help out-of-town guests plan trips around the city.
What sparked the controversy for the employe group that contacted CETA supervisors was an incident this past August when, for the third time, the employes did not receive their paychecks on time.
"It was the third time and it was three times too many," said Lois Crawford, one of the trainees who first raised questions about the program's payroll procedures.
Sewell sent out a memorandum to the trainees that same month telling them he had been informed by CETA that the payroll vouchers he sent the office were "laying dormant on someone's desk while they were going through reorganizations."
When the trainees went to the CETA office to check on this and other payroll problems, they were told such a problem had never occurred.
"We knew there was nothing improper or wrong at this end," said the Rev. Jesse Anderson, assistant director of the D.C. Labor Department's employability development office and the official in charge of the CETA programs.
"That's when we started wondering and began our own investigation," Anderson said yesterday. He said that the office has a grants management specialist who is supposed to monitor the program and make periodic visits to the work site.
Sewell said he is "so terribly sick about this" because he has worked very hard to turn the program into an exceptional job training program. He said he hopes the program can be funded again, perhaps through the D.C. Chamber of Commerce and without him as its director.
He complained that the CETA office frequently was slow in reimbursing his firm for its payroll expenditures, a situation that caused credit problems at the institute's bank.
"I was aware the requisition forms were being Xeroxed, but I was not aware of the details," said Sewell, who explained that he spent much of his time just trying to keep the program functioning.
But Effiong Essien, the program's most recent accountant, said "Sewell knew all about it" when it came to time to prepare payroll vouchers for CETA. "He approved everything" and was the only one among the two of them who was in the program since Essien frequently worked on the books at night and did not know the employes personally.
Both Essien and Ralph Harmon, who worked directly under Sewell as the program's field supervisor, say that to the best of their knowledge only two new employes were ever hired to replace several who left during the program's operation.
Harmon has said that at first he didn't believe the employes' accusations until they returned from their frist trip to the CETA office. Then, he said, he used his key to the office files to examine and copy some of the payroll documents, which he turned over to CETA.
More recently, Harmon said he met with agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation to discuss his discovery of payroll disrepancies.
All this has bothered both the trainees and Dr. A. Knighton Stanley, former chairman of the D.C. Bicentennial Commission and chairman of the board for the program Sewell directed. He said he has only recently been aware of the employe allegations and is inclined to suspect they reflect procedural problems rather than dishonesty.
"All we were attempting to do was a good program for the employes," said Stanley, who is also pastor of the Peoples Congregational Church of Christ. He, like the trainees who went to CETA, are worried that adverse publicity might affect what is otherwise a good training goal.
"I still think it's a useful program and hope it will continue under some auspieces," said Stanley, who nevertheless is planning to end his involvement and sponsorship of it.