April 17, 2011

Employees stole $83,000 from Natural Resources, Pretrial Detention and Services, auditors say

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By Megan Poinski
Megan@MarylandReporter.com

State of Maryland credit cardTwo employees stole thousands from the state government departments where they worked, auditors say, and both were fired.

One made $71,000 worth of unauthorized purchases with a government credit card from the Department of Natural Resources, and another took $12,500 in cash from the Division of Pretrial Detention and Services.

Both cases were turned over to the Attorney General’s Office for investigation. Benjamin Brown, a former deputy commissioner handling financial matters for the Pretrial Detention and Services,  pleaded guilty to felony theft last year and was sentenced to a six-month suspended sentence, two years of probation, and 300 hours of community service.

Department of Natural Resources

According to the Department of Legislative Services’ audit, released last week, the comptroller’s office noticed a suspicious charge on a Department of Natural Resources employee’s government credit card statement in January 2010. The charge, for $720 in December 2009, instigated an investigation of the employee’s credit card purchases.

Auditors expandedthe initial investigation by the comptroller’s office, finding $71,000 worth of questionable purchases with a government credit card.

“This is one of the larger credit card issues we’ve been involved with,” said Tom Barnickel, deputy legislative auditor.

Many of the purchases were delivered to the employee’s home, the audit states. The employee often made purchases online and created invoices to turn in to the department, stating that the items purchased were work-related, and leaving out money spent on computer games, clothes and gift cards. Additionally, to deflect suspicion, the employee used another DNR employee’s government credit card to make purchases.

The employee was fired in March 2010.

Barnickel said this was an example of failing to utilize the checks and balances to control government credit cards. Supervisors are supposed to approve all purchases made with government credit cards each month, and employees are supposed to submit all vendor invoices.

The audit states said the employee thought to have misused the credit card signed off on some of the reports approving them.

According to the response from DNR Secretary John Griffin, the department has since cut back on the number of credit cards employees use and instituted training on how to use them, as well as how to follow the process of approving purchases.

Division of Pretrial Detention and Services

When prisoners are first taken into custody by the Division of Pretrial Detention and Services, items they are carrying – such as money – are taken from them. Special care needs to be taken when the cash that is taken from prisoners is contaminated by things like blood.

According to the audit, in 2006, management at the division came to believe that banks would not take deposits of contaminated cash. But banks were still accepting contaminated cash. An employee decided to collect all of the money that was contaminated – a total of $12,500 – and reported that it had been thrown away in a landfill.

“I’m not sure where he got that idea. He should have put it in the bank at that point,” Barnickel said.

State funds were moved to cover the money that was thought to have been thrown away, and a new process to deal with contaminated funds – locking them in a safe until prisoners were released – was developed.

In April 2010, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services began an internal investigation into the contaminated cash reportedly in a landfill, the audit states. During the investigation, Brown admitted to stealing the money. In August, he paid the department back. He entered his guilty plea and was sentenced in October.

According to the response to the audit by Division Commissioner Wendell France, all contaminated funds will once again be deposited in banks by June.