State inspector general makes 4 cases a year

\The Georgia Department of Transportation manager was one of five employees on a committee evaluating which vendors were best suited to win a massive state contract.

He was also pocketing thousands of dollars as a consultant for one of those vendors – and failed to tell his bosses.

That vendor won the bid. But before the contract could be signed, an investigation by the Inspector General’s Office brought the shady financial arrangement to light in 2011.

This modest success – the investigation began after the vendor itself reported the conflict of interest – is among the handful of cases the office makes every year. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of the inspector general’s cases shows:

  • The agency has received 992 complaints since 2006 and uncovered wrongdoing or exposed weaknesses in state agencies in 29 cases – an average of about four a year.
  • The office refers roughly three of four complaints to other agencies or finds that an investigation is unnecessary.
  • Of the 272 cases the office did investigate, 90 percent were ruled unfounded or investigators decided they lacked sufficient evidence to make a case.

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One Georgia government watchdog, Common Cause Georgia executive director William Perry, said he was surprised by what he considered low production.

“You just think about that many accusations or that many whistle blowers,” he said. “It’s just surprising that wrongdoing is found so seldom.”

Georgia’s Inspector General, Deron Hicks, said \he would have considered four substantiated cases per year to be low — before he was appointed to his post by Gov. Nathan Deal in January 2011. But with almost two years on the job, Hicks said much of his investigators’ time goes toward running down complaints that don’t pan out.

“A lot of them, we’ll go a good ways down a path and just determine that there’s no basis for the complaint,” he said. “It eats up a ton of time.”

Hicks also said that most complaints are referred or turned down because his office either doesn’t have the authority to investigate or they aren’t worthy tips. His office only looks into complaints involving agencies of the state’s executive branch. This includes the massive departments of transportation, natural resources, human services and others, but not the Legislature or the state’s judiciary.

“I think part of that is, in a lot of situations, people don’t know where to go when they have a complaint,” Hicks said. “And so we get a lot that has to deal with federal issues, local issues.”

The office recently received a complaint that the city of Smyrna isn’t enforcing its noise ordinance; in another, an Atlanta woman claimed that local police had bugged her apartment.

‘More with less’

Using data obtained through the Georgia Open Records Act, the AJC analyzed the IG’s cases dating to 2006.

Complaints to the inspector general on the rise, from 97 in 2006 to 218 last year. At the same time, the office’s budget, now at $572,486, has been cut by about 30 percent over the past five years.

“We’ve just had to do more with less,” Hicks said. “There’s just no other way to get around it.”

Hicks said that the tips his office chooses to investigate often look good at the outset.

“It smells like a good case, but you get into it and you realize it’s not,” he said.

The office does sometimes uncover malfeasance or weaknesses in policy or procedure that make departments vulnerable to fraud.

Two state agencies are tied for having the most substantiated investigations since 2006, with four apiece: The Department of Transportation and the Georgia Building Authority.

A spokeswoman for DOT, Jill Goldberg, described the agency’s position on that list as predictable, considering its size and the amount of money DOT dishes out.

“We are a huge organization” with a budget of $2 billion, she said. “So when you are talking about budgets of that size, coupled with the thousands of employees, contractors and programs that we have operating all across Georgia, they can certainly be susceptible to issues out there.”

But, Goldberg said, “We are firm and absolute in ethical conduct that we expect and we hold not only our employees but our contractors to that and make everybody totally accountable.”

The DOT supervisor caught accepting consulting money from the vendor resigned after he was placed on administrative leave, Goldberg said.

Paul Melvin, spokesman for the building authority, said that all four cases involving the agency were initiated by the agency – not from whistle blowers or outside sources.

Two of those cases came nine months apart in 2007.

One was about whether a locksmith for the agency had used his state-issued vehicle and phone for personal use; the other involved allegations that a food services supervisor had inappropriately steered a contract to a company run by a friend.

The inspector general’s office substantiated both allegations, according to records. The locksmith had been driving to Bremen to visit his girlfriend, according to the investigative report. The food services supervisor had a long-term friendship with the CEO of the company that he selected for the contract.

Melvin also said that each investigation resulted in internal changes that strengthened the agency’s policies.

Hicks says that’s what his agency is shooting for.

“Listen, at the end of the day, if I can get an agency to see that [they’ve] got a problem or [they’ve] got a deficiency in the way [they’re] doing stuff, and make them willing to go in there and change that, that’s what I want,” he said.

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