POSTED ON JANUARY 28, 2009:
Time for A Good SCARE
Government services management needs more fear of oversight for accountability. Former "Gang of Four" city councilor was correct afterall. TPWD looks to have needed independent auditing
Shortly after it was announced on Thursday that two former Tulsa Public Works Department employees and four businessmen involved in contracting with TPWD had been indicted, a TV reporter e-mailed to ask if I'd be willing to talk on camera about the situation. I told him I didn't have much to say, but I knew someone who would.
I put the reporter in touch with former City Councilor Jim Mautino. During his 2004-2006 term in office, Mautino called repeatedly for an independent audit of TPWD, citing concerns about cost overruns, change orders, job scheduling mix-ups, faulty planning and engineering, and insufficient inspection of work done by companies under contract to the city.
Despite support from his fellow "Gang of Four" councilors, the idea was denounced by TPWD director Charles Hardt and blocked by then-Mayor Bill LaFortune as unnecessary.
Mautino and his fellow audit supporters should rightly feel vindicated after this week's Federal indictments.
Mautino's recommendation was drawn from his professional experience as an airline maintenance instructor. Years ago, he was appointed to a three-man team to conduct a quality assurance review of some of the airline's facilities, with the aim of uncovering the causes of persistent maintenance problems plaguing the fleet.
The review was called a SCARE audit, and the process was intended to throw a scare into managers and employees who weren't complying with rules and regulations or maintaining accurate work records.
The acronym refers to five aspects of quality assurance:
Safeguarding of assets
Compliance with laws, rules, and regulations
Accomplishment of goals and objectives
Reliability and integrity of information
Economy and efficiency
The audit covers basic compliance -- Are we doing what we are required to do by law and company policy and procedures? -- as well as performance -- Are we doing what's best to get the job done in the most efficient way?
When Mautino's QA team arrived to do an inspection, they were given the run of the place. They were authorized to speak to any employee, look at any aircraft, any workshop, or any tool, and review any record.
A range of specialties was represented on the team. Each member brought his own job knowledge to bear on identifying problems. The team knew enough to spot whether, for example, inspections that were documented as complete had actually been done, or whether existing procedures weren't catching significant problems.
Mautino has heard enough stories about Public Works projects gone awry to believe that TPWD needs the same sort of wide-ranging, well-funded, and independent top-to-bottom audit that private firms use to protect company resources and improve efficiency.
Last week's federal indictments accuse Albert S. Martinez, until last week the field engineering manager for TPWD, of accepting more than $180,000 in bribes from two construction company presidents in exchange for approving fraudulent final payment invoices and accepting $20,000 in bribes by executives of an engineering inspection company to steer city contracts to their firm.
Former design engineering manager Larry Wayne Baker was indicted for paying a $9,000 bribe to "City Employee A.M.," identified by the indictment as the "Field Engineering Manager." The indictment alleges that the bribe was paid to influence the awarding of an inspection contract for the widening of 36th St. N. between Cincinnati Ave. and the Osage County Line. Although the project was funded by the Vision 2025 county sales tax, the project belongs to the City of Tulsa, which had full responsibility for hiring and overseeing contractors.
While three counts date back to October 2005, the remainder of the alleged crimes took place between November 2006 and September 2008, on Mayor Kathy Taylor's watch.
A first read of the indictments suggests that additional internal controls might have prevented the alleged fraudulent final payment invoices from being paid. A thorough, top-to-bottom, independent audit might identify a lack of sufficient oversight and cross-checking to ensure that only valid invoices were paid.
The contract-steering allegations are more puzzling. Martinez was just one member of the Professional Consulting Services Selection Committee. (You can find the committee's agendas, but not its minutes, on the city's Web site.)
According to the indictment, a majority vote was required to award an engineering or inspection services contract. How many people serve on this committee? Who else is on the committee? How could one member be able to steer projects to a favored contractor without being detected?
It's too early to tell if the indictments represent the tip of the iceberg or the full extent of the problem. Those charged may yet be exonerated.
Regardless of the outcome, the indictments ought to light a fire under the City Council and Mayor Taylor to fund the independent audit that Mautino demanded.
The Public Works Department is the city's single biggest department, spending more than $200 million annually. "That's an arena every year," Mautino pointed out. An audit that could identify even a 1 percent improvement in eliminating fraud, waste and abuse would pay for itself many times over.
Most city workers try to do the best they can for the citizens. When water began leaking from a main beneath our street on Christmas Eve, we thought we'd be without water all through Christmas. But a Public Works crew dug up the street, fixed the leak, filled the hole, and had the street reopened long before Santa came by.
But there will always be those public officials who will misuse the public trust for personal gain. In 1981, dozens of Oklahoma county commissioners were convicted for accepting kickbacks from vendors. In the 1990s, Oklahoma Corporation Commissioner Robert Hopkins went to federal prison for taking bribe money from a regulated utility.
More recently, congressmen have gone to prison for taking bribes to steer earmarks to federal contractors, and Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich has been charged with soliciting bribes in connection with his power to fill a vacancy in the U. S. Senate.
Last June, TPWD director Charles Hardt responded with irritation to renewed Council interest in an independent audit of his department, pushing instead for an internal review. He told a Council committee that if they were looking for wrongdoing, they should just "hire a head hunter or a witch hunter and get on with it."
Madame Mayor and gentlemen of the Council, you heard the man. Let's get on with it.
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