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Utah DOC Audit: Ingrained Staff Cronyism Stymies Workplace Effectiveness

by John E. Dannenberg

A December 2006 state audit of the Utah Department of Corrections (UDC) found that entrenched upper management personnel lacked vision and innovation, while they selectively allowed punishable staff "indiscretions" to be swept under the rug without consequences. This self-perpetuating chronic situation left UDC staff morale in a tailspin and the department in need of complete reformation at the top level, according to auditors. The audit also criticized lack of current training and "selective" case treatment by UDC Internal Affairs investigators.

UDC's current annual budget is $240 million. In 2006, UDC housed 6,400 prisoners who were supervised by 1,278 guards. A total of 2,457 staff positions were authorized but only 2,200 were filled. That the number of job vacancies wasn't larger is surprising, since UDC wages average only 82% that of county jails. UDC wages start at $12.14 per hour, compared with $14.73 for the counties.

But the most significant complaint among UDC employees focused on rampant staff acrimony that even extended beyond the workplace. Knowing this from prior reports, the auditors identified three areas of inquiry: (1) whether personnel practices evidenced favoritism; (2) whether unethical management behavior existed; and (3) if management personnel were qualified and experienced enough to lead.

Favoritism in the UDC had already been denounced in a Governor's transition report in 2004. The "negative culture of favoritism" noted at that time included a UDC Internal Affairs investigator (the son of a former UDC administrator) who was charged with a sex crime but never prosecuted. Also, a supervisor caught viewing pornography at work was not disciplined.

In the December 2006 report, the auditors highlighted ten new problem cases. A prison supervisor with a DUI conviction who was caught using drugs was placed on paid administrative leave for 5 months, thus allowing him to retire before having to face disciplinary action. An Internal Affairs supervisor got off scot-free after lying to another officer for financial gain. UDC Internal Affairs investigators were seemingly immune from any investigation of themselves. A whistleblower who reported a security breach suffered an involuntary transfer - worse treatment than for the staff members he turned in. A UDC employee with known misleading credentials was hired as a special favor. Five other incidents involved questionably motivated promotions and squashed investigations of prison administrators.

UDC employee grievances rank highest among the state's agencies. 1.9% of UDC personnel filed grievances, compared with .09% for the Public Safety Department, the agency most similar in function. UDC's staff grievance rate was 50% higher than those of four adjoining states' prison systems.
These personnel problems have been recognized internally. A former UDC executive director called gender-based discrimination "institutionalized." An internal 2003 survey found that 76% of UDC employees felt that favoritism existed in the department, while 81% were "frustrated by their employment." A follow-up 2006 survey highlighted "good old boy" favoritism as the top-billed morale aggravation factor.

Training was also criticized by the auditors. In 2005, 6% (107) of UDC guards did not meet training requirements of 40 hours per year; 25 of those had not met training criteria for two years. A division director was delinquent for 4 years, a captain was delinquent for 6 years, and a guard (who had never taken recurrent training) was delinquent for his full five years of tenure. By law, failure to complete requisite training results in decertification, and decertified guards should not receive pay. They also should not accrue retirement benefits. But UDC did not follow those laws; one un-retrained peace officer received $7,000 in excess compensation. Of even greater concern, untrained guards put the state at risk for liability.

Next, the auditors criticized UDC's use of 192 "commute vehicles."  These are cars assigned to employees with 24-hour on-call status, who must work at home or are in the vehicle during 80% of their on-the-job time (e.g., parole officers). There was no proper accounting of the use of these vehicles, which cost UDC $1.1 million per year. There were also allegations of favoritism in the assignment of commute vehicles.

Finally, the report found UDC's Internal Audit Bureau lacking. The Audit Bureau reports to an intermediate level director, contrary to state law.
The report stated the agency needed more independence to be effective.
The auditing that was performed was found to be non-compliant with state law or auditing standards. The lack of proper internal auditing was blamed for favoritism that went unchecked, and that favoritism, in turn, permitted lax auditing standards.

It is not surprising that the state auditors suggested that UDC needed complete reformation in the department's upper management in order to eliminate ingrained "good old boy" cronyism and lack of leadership.See: Report to the Legislature, No. 2006-12, "A Performance Audit of the Utah Department of Corrections," December 2006. The report is available on PLN's website.

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