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EXCLUSIVE: Financial Irregularities at Arlington’s Senior Travel Program

By ARLnow.com - ARLNow.com

Monday - 4/29/2013, 2:25pm  ET

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.

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