County workers' kin got free trips

Parks agency audit reveals staff gave away unsold seats

May 30, 1999|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

The husband of an Anne Arundel County employee must have loved the Broadway show "Titanic." He saw it twice, both times at taxpayer expense.

An audit covering most of 1998 revealed that workers in the county Department of Recreation and Parks regularly filled unsold seats for trips with nonpaying relatives, waived class fees for department employees and awarded themselves other discounts and perks.

Nearly a quarter of the seats -- seven out of 30 -- for one 1998 "Titanic" bus trip to New York City were occupied at no charge by relatives of the two trip leaders. Other members of the public paid $165 each. One trip leader brought her husband on all five of the trips reviewed by county auditor Teresa Sutherland.

The audit, completed in March and obtained by The Sun through a Maryland Public Information Act request, found a department that lacks written, formal policies on ticket sales for trips, operating instead by spoken, seat-of-the-pants policies and forgoing many routine accounting practices.

The findings stunned the parks department's new director, Dennis Callahan. The former mayor of Annapolis is a political ally of County Executive Janet S. Owens, who brought him on as one of her first appointees after winning election in November.

"Of all the findings in the audit, that to me is the most troubling," Callahan said of the free trips for his department's employees' relatives. "Common sense to me would demand that you know that is not the right thing to do."

However, Callahan said, he is not punishing the employees who filled empty seats on bus trips with their relatives. The practice, like other peculiarities in the department, developed over 25 years in an expanding agency that has had seven directors in eight years, he said.

Employees told officials that because the department was committed to the trips, they did not want to waste unsold seats.

"That is very disturbing. It looks like government as usual, favoritism," said County Council Chairman Daniel E. Klosterman Jr. "It looks like it's who you know and you get to go for free. Meanwhile, the rest of the taxpayers are paying to go on the trip."

Callahan said the department has halted the free trips and is going to set policies for canceling trips or adjusting prices if the trip does not fill.

"What you don't do is fill the bus up with your relatives," Callahan said.

Among the audit findings:

The Lawmen, identified as a county police men's softball team, received a 25 percent discount on the $285 team fee last year. That is the same discount the recreation and parks agency gave any league team that had at least one recreation and parks employee on it. But with no provision in the county code authorizing such a break, and no written policy on it, the practice was illegal.

The trip leader was not required to report her policies or practices for ticket sales to her supervisor. The supervisor told auditors she was unaware that relatives of the trip leader went free on everything from a $400 trip to Myrtle Beach, S.C., to a $13 shopping day at Potomac Mills in Woodbridge, Va. On the five trips audited, the county lost nearly $2,000 by filling unsold spots with employees' family members.

Full-time recreation and parks employees attended the agency's classes free. Part-timers got a 15 percent discount. Again, this came about by tradition, not by a policy or provision in the county code. The auditor could not determine how much this cost the county because class attendance and payment records were unclear.

The average time between receiving payment for activities and depositing the checks was 50 days. Some checks languished 88 days.

Callahan said every change the auditor recommended has been made or is in the process of being implemented.

New policies, which state that no relatives get free trips and no county employees get discounts, have been drafted. The circumstances for discounts for the public have been formalized on paper.

"They have new marching orders now," Callahan said.

Pub Date: 5/30/99

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