Audit sought of Maximus company

DHR agency head targets child support enforcement firm

March 21, 2002|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

In an unusual move that bypassed her supervisors, an agency head in the state's Department of Human Resources has asked lawmakers to order an audit of the private company that administers child support enforcement in Baltimore, noting "grave concerns about the integrity" of the firm's work.

Teresa L. Kaiser, executive director of the Child Support Enforcement Administration, said she believes an independent third party would find that Maximus Inc. had manipulated data on cases "in a manner that suggests wrongdoing."

The request, in a letter to the co-chairmen of the Joint Audit Committee, comes as Maximus is waging a battle to win passage of a bill allowing it to bid for an extension of the privatization contract it won in 1999.

The House and Senate have passed versions of the bill, but the differences have yet to be reconciled.

In her letter to Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg and Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, Kaiser notes that it is "extraordinary" for a state employee to go outside a department to ask legislators for an audit.

"The nature of the apparent wrongdoing, the number of families affected and the political nature of this issue at this time require that those who are asked to investigate be unimpeachable and without political motivation," Kaiser wrote. "For this reason I suggest the legislative auditors."

Rosenberg and McFadden, Baltimore Democrats who are on opposite sides of the privatization issue, said they would refer the letter to state auditors and let them decide whether to investigate.

McFadden, a critic of Maximus and the legislation, said he was startled by the allegations.

"That thing just knocked me out of my seat when I saw it," he said yesterday. "I really can't say much. We referred it to the auditor. I heard [the charges] before, but had not seen them in writing."

Rosenberg, a leading proponent of privatization, said he had not previously heard of the accusations in the letter, but said they have not changed his views.

"Mere allegations should not justify any change in my position," he said. "The bill authorizes a bidding process. It doesn't award a contract to any company."

Executives of Maximus did not return telephone calls seeking comments. Company lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano asked for a copy of Kaiser's letter by fax, but did not return a call seeking comment.

Kaiser confirmed yesterday that she wrote the letter and delivered it Tuesday.

She lays out several allegations she wants investigated:

That Maximus improperly closed cases in a way that improved the scores on which its performance is judged.

That Maximus inflated its scores for establishing paternity and securing court orders for child support by creating multiple cases out of a single valid case.

That Maximus often collected more money than the noncustodial parent owed or continued to collect after the child became a legal adult and failed to make refunds when asked.

That Maximus diverted payments from cases in other jurisdictions to its city cases without obtaining a wage withholding order. Kaiser said this results in families in the counties abruptly having payments cut.

That Maximus reopened old cases improperly to get credit for obtaining court orders.

The letter bypassed the top leadership of the department and its inspector general.

Department spokesman Erlene B. Wilson said Secretary Emelda P. Johnson had not seen the letter and could not comment on it.

Michael Morrill, a spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening, said he had not seen the letter until a reporter showed it to him.

"The department needs to check the validity of the allegations, do the appropriate investigation and take the appropriate action," Morrill said.

The letter indicates that Kaiser believes that sending it puts her at risk personally and professionally.

Relations between the child support chief and Maximus have clearly deteriorated since she was quoted complimenting the company two years ago.

Last month, Maximus general counsel David R. Francis wrote to Johnson accusing Kaiser of trying to undermine its efforts in the city.

Her actions "seem calculated to disrupt Maximus' operations and sow seeds of apprehension and uncertainty among a talented and dedicated work force," he wrote.

McFadden said he hoped Kaiser's fear for her job was unfounded. "I would think ... she would be protected," he said.

Sun staff writer David Nitkin contributed to this article.

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