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EXCLUSIVE: Financial Irregularities at Arlington’s Senior Travel Program

by ARLnow.com — April 29, 2013 at 2:25 pm 3,603 0

New Arlington County Department of Parks and Recreation bus, which is used for the Senior Adult Travel Program (photo courtesy Arlington County DPR)One county employee was fired and three others were disciplined after financial irregularities were discovered at Arlington’s Senior Adult Travel Program, but no criminal charges were brought after a months-long investigation that one source says was “botched.”

The investigation started in fall 2011, after four improperly-opened bank accounts were discovered, but only came to light this month after one of disciplined employees appealed her punishment at a public Civil Service Commission hearing, which was attended by ARLnow.com.

The four accounts were opened, unbeknownst to county officials, at an Arlington PNC Bank branch in 2010. They were opened by an Arlington Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) employee who coordinated the Senior Adult Travel program, we’re told by a source with knowledge of the investigation.

The county-run senior travel program organizes dozens of trips per year for Arlington residents over the age of 55. The activities range from day trips to cultural performance, casinos and historic sites — on a new county-owned bus — to overnight trips to Europe and elsewhere. The program has two employees, an annual budget of $134,046 and recorded 2,738 trip reservations in Fiscal Year 2012, according to DPR Director Jane Rudolph.

The four accounts were used to deposit fees paid by travelers and to pay for senior travel program expenses, but were outside of the county’s direct control. By personally opening and controlling the account, the employee (who has not been officially identified) was able to conduct transactions — like paying for meals and other expenses on the trips — without the restrictions and hassle of the county’s internal financial controls.

“It was well-meaning employees who thought they were enhancing the experience of seniors,” Arlington County Director of Human Resources Marcy Foster told ARLnow.com. “They were delivering quick and efficient services, and they thought that was the way to do it.”

But operating the accounts, and cashing checks written out to Arlington County in accounts not controlled by the county, was a serious violation of county policy. After one of the accounts was discovered by an audit in late 2010, DPR management and budget analyst Celia Wong-Walsh was directed by then-DPR Director Dinesh Tiwari to close it.

For nearly a year, however, the account remained open. Wong-Walsh, the employee who appealed her punishment this month, told the Civil Service Commission that she could not force the bank to close the rogue account. She says the bank told her that the account could only be closed by the employee that opened it.

Wong-Walsh, who has since retired, had some of her unpaid leave stripped for failing to proactively work with the employee to close the account. She appealed the punishment, saying she did not have the legal authority to close the account and didn’t even know that more than one rogue account had been opened.

(The commission upheld the county’s disciplinary action but reduced the amount of leave that was taken away.)

The accounts were finally closed in September 2011, after the Arlington County Treasurer’s Office discovered them independently. The discovery was made when a $200 check written from one of the accounts bounced in August 2011, and the woman who it was written to contacted the treasurer.

A police investigation followed, but no criminal wrongdoing was found.

“We didn’t find any money missing,” said Foster. “There was no criminal activity.”

That point was disputed by a source with knowledge of the investigation, who spoke to ARLnow.com on the condition of anonymity. The source said up to $17,000 might have been missing from the accounts, but any solid evidence of that was lost because it took too long to investigate.

“The case was so screwed up that they couldn’t prosecute,” the source said.

The police investigation stretched from fall 2011 to May 2012, Foster told ARLnow.com. In all, $135,983 was transferred out of the four rogue accounts and back into county-controlled accounts. Foster again rejected any suggestion of missing funds.

“We found there were… accounting procedures that were a little bit sloppy,” she said. “Money could have gone missing if we didn’t jump in and quickly take corrective action.”

While no criminal charges were filed, the county ended up taking disciplinary action again four employees. One employee was fired, one was suspended, Wong-Walsh lost her unpaid leave and one employee was given a written reprimand. Foster declined to identify the three unnamed employees.

We asked why an employee was fired — a rather rare action in county government.

“It’s serious,” Foster said. “When we ask people to follow directives and they choose not to follow them because they have better ideas — and we don’t think we can’t find a different place in the organization for them — we make a determination on what we can do to make that program successful and make people understand this is a serious action. Termination was a disciplinary action that was fair based on the actions that should have been taken.”

“The county does not separate with people lightly,” added Arlington County Director of Communications Diana Sun.

This was the second time in 2011 that a DPR employee was accused of financial wrongdoing. DPR employee Denise Marshall Roller was accused and later convicted of embezzling some $12,000 from the Arlington County Fair by opening fake bank accounts.

Tiwari retired as DPR director in June 2012, leaving for a job with the City of Alexandria. Our source says the fact that the retirement came after two major financial issues within DPR “was not a coincidence.”

“Parks and Recreation under [Tiwari] was a disaster,” the source said. “It was so screwed up, the lack of controls.”

Foster would only say that Tiwari “retired and took another job that was better for him.”

Since the accounts were discovered, Senior Travel Program staff have undergone training on proper financial controls. The program remains popular with seniors.

“The senior travel program is a very successful program,” said Rudolph, who replaced Tiwari as DPR director in January.

Update at 2:50 p.m. — In a press release issued after publication of this article, Arlington County says the Senior Travel Program has been “restructured.”

A popular Senior Travel Program run by Arlington County’s Department of Parks and Recreation that had operated with little oversight has been restructured and brought under strict management of the County’s Departments of Parks and Recreation and Management and Finance, according to Arlington County officials.

“The Senior Travel Program is a very successful program that unfortunately, cut corners in its operations,” said Arlington County Manager Barbara Donnellan. “We took this case very seriously. Although the police investigation found no criminal activity, we took a number of actions – including personnel actions – to ensure that this program has oversight, accountability and transparency in its operations.”

In November 2010, County officials determined that, contrary to County policy, the program was not using proper financial management practices and had been maintaining outside bank accounts that were not subject to County auditing and financial controls.

The County coordinated an investigation into the program’s management and financial practices with the Arlington County Police Department and Commonwealth’s Attorney. The investigation included a review by external auditors. It was determined that no program participant lost any money. In every instance, participants received the services that they paid for.

In May 2012, ACPD and the Commonwealth’s Attorney determined that there was no criminal activity or intent in the operating of the accounts or the program. The County then conducted an administrative investigation and held staff accountable for failing to follow County practices; this included a number of personnel actions that were only recently completed.

Senior Travel Program reforms

The County has put in place strict procedures for managing the Senior Travel program. The Departments of Parks and Management and Finance have instituted oversight, accountability and transparency in the program’s operations.

Many County departments have worked to solve the problem, including County Manager’s Office, Dept. of Parks, Dept. of Management and Finance, and the Police Department. In addition, County Treasurer, County Attorney’s Office and Commonwealth Attorney have been involved.

Senior Travel trips unaffected

The investigation determined that all program participants received all the trips and services that they paid for. Program participants consistently expressed high levels of satisfaction with program. Senior Travel continues to offer a variety of opportunities for high-quality, low-cost travel for the 55-plus age group.

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