State lawmakers have registered outrage after a state audit, released in October 2010, revealed that employees of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Corrections (DPSC) at five finance offices in the Baltimore area used a prisoners’ trust account for paycheck advances. Irregularities were also discovered in an account that had tens of thousands of dollars in missing funds.
“This is inmates’ money, and it’s like a giant ATM,” said Baltimore County Democratic Delegate Steven J. DeBoy, Sr., chairman of the legislative committee that oversees audits.
“If people are stealing, we need to get them out of state service and prosecute them.”
DPSC officials said they had instituted reforms to correct the problems identified in the audit. One DPSC employee was fired, another was disciplined and two others left the department.
The problems involved DPSC employees who used money from the prisoners’ trust account to issue paycheck advances, plus missing funds from a working account used to finance small expenditures. Some employees had access to blank checks from the working account with no supervisory oversight. Tens of thousands of dollars were missing and unaccounted for.
The ability to issue paycheck advances was intended to help out new employees awaiting their first biweekly paycheck after two weeks of employment. However, the audit revealed that working and prisoner monies were comingled, and that veteran DPSC employees were allowed to draw advances without any explanation or justification.
“Our findings regarding the working funds and inmate funds indicate serious control weaknesses; a lack of proper record keeping, documentation, and oversight for these funds; as well as questions regarding specific fund transactions,” the audit report stated.
In 2007 alone, 72 DPSC employees received advances totaling about $53,000 without proper documentation. One employee failed to repay $2,300 in advances after retiring in July 2009. Another employee, who had retired in June 2005, was given a $541 check in February 2008 for no recorded reason.
There were other problems associated with prisoner accounts. Prisoners’ signatures were missing from forms indicating they received the money from their accounts upon being released from prison. Instead, prison employees had signed the forms.
“Here we had employees handing out cash to inmates when they leave and the inmates didn’t sign for it, so we don’t even know if they got it,” said chief auditor Bruce A. Meyers.
The DPSC had also paid over $23,000 in bank fees, primarily due to bad checks written on prisoners’ accounts. The auditors sent their findings to the state attorney general’s office, though it is unknown if an investigation was opened.
Some of the problems at the Baltimore-area finance offices were previously identified in a 2006 state audit. “Things didn’t get any better, let’s put it mildly,” said Meyers.
The DPSC said it tried to fix the problems with staff training. When that didn’t work, it began merging four financial offices into a single office located in Jessup. The merger was completed in May 2010. An audit of the Jessup office in July 2010 showed some problems, but none near the magnitude of those in the Baltimore-area offices.
Corrections Commissioner J. Michael Stouffer tried to blame the problems revealed in the audit on difficulties with attracting and retaining qualified employees.
“We had a hard time getting good folks to work anywhere in the fiscal office, but particularly in the Baltimore region,” he said.
However, state legislators found it hard to believe that the DPSC can’t hire qualified employees when the Baltimore area has such a high rate of unemployment. “Please don’t walk away thinking this is just a personnel issue,” DeBoy told DPSC officials. See: Office of Legislative Audits, Audit Report, Dept. of Public Safety and Correctional Services, Baltimore Region (October 2010).
Additional source: Baltimore Sun
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