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Auditors find waste, cover-up at Fleet Services

Monday, November 21, 2016 by Jo Clifton

Employees of the city’s Fleet Services Department made mistakes in ordering a new pursuit vehicle for the Austin Police Department, receiving instead an SUV that neither APD nor any other department wanted. That error ending up costing the city approximately $45,000, according to a special report by the Office of the City Auditor.

In addition to finding that Fleet Services has been using “grossly inefficient practices which led to the wrong vehicle being purchased,” auditors have reported that after they started investigating the problem, two unnamed fleet department employees appear to have tried to obstruct the investigation.

According to the report, Fleet Services started the process of placing an order on behalf of APD in early 2014. The vehicle was requested in order to replace an older pursuit-rated vehicle, with an estimated cost of $37,838.

Instead of ordering the appropriate vehicle, a Fleet Services specification writer ordered a different class of vehicle, a Tahoe, known as an LS class vehicle. Not only did management fail to catch the error, the auditors say, but “the vendor contacted the specification writer to clarify that the vehicle he was ordering was an LS model, instead of a police pursuit rated vehicle.”

The specification writer then told the vendor to process the purchase of the Tahoe at a cost of $43,843.

Several months after the purchase, the vehicle arrived at what is called a make-ready facility. “At that point, Fleet Services realized that the vehicle was not a police pursuit rated vehicle, and therefore would not be accepted by APD,” the report says.

Fleet Services staff tried to return the vehicle to the vendor but estimated that it would cost about $10,000 to do so. At that point, staff tried to offer the vehicle to other departments but was not able to find a department that needed the large vehicle.

The report says, “Fleet Services staff told the Office of the City Auditor that the Fleet Services Director (Jerry Calk) decided to keep the vehicle in Fleet Services and that he would drive it around for business purposes.”

Employees also told auditors that Calk decided to paint parts of the vehicle because it arrived bearing APD’s standard colors of black and white. Painting the white parts of the vehicle cost the city an additional $1,575, the report says, bringing the total cost of the Tahoe to $45,418.

Auditors say that this was not the only error made by this particular specification writer, both before and after this incident. Other errors made by the same unnamed employee “appear to have gone through the acquisition process without being caught, resulting in Fleet Services buying the wrong vehicles and equipment. However, Fleet appears to have handled these situations without incurring additional cost to the city,” the report says.

But the report notes that this employee’s errors did not appear in the employee’s personnel file until May 2016, when auditors asked for the file. At that point, the employee’s supervisor noted “frequent errors.”

According to the response to the audit provided by the department director, purchases can sometimes take up to a year, delaying the discovery of errors. Calk said that the particular employee has been placed on a Performance Improvement Plan.

The report also states that two Fleet Services employees “modified records provided to the Auditor so that the vehicle in question would appear in the rental pool list, when in reality, the vehicle had not been formally designated as a rental pool vehicle.”

Nathan Wiebe, chief of investigations in the auditor’s office, told the Austin Monitor, “We tried to find out if the vehicle was available for rent by other city employees. What we discovered is that the Tahoe was added (to the list of rental vehicles) after we put in the request.”

Asked whether the situation had been remedied, Wiebe said, “I can’t answer whether they made it available, but following our request, they made it appear as if it was available. And I’m not aware to this day whether the vehicle has been rented.”

Calk also wrote, “To address this lack of cooperation by employees identified in the report, senior management has counseled the employees involved on the importance of communicating changes made to data to any investigative body immediately should they have knowledge that such data is or may be the subject of an investigation. Management is continuing to investigate the actions identified in the report and will take appropriate disciplinary action if warranted.”

APD still needs a new vehicle to replace the requested vehicle. A staff member confirmed for auditors that a replacement vehicle has been added to the 2017 budget to make up for the accidental purchase.

Calk wrote in a response to the auditors and to Assistant City Manager Mark Washington that the city could recover the funds mistakenly spent by substituting the mistakenly purchased vehicle for a future new vehicle.

Photo by TTTNIS made available via a Creative Commons license.

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