City officials prioritize halting public employee malfeasance

From embezzlement to assault and forgery, eight public employees faced criminal charges in 2011, prompting officials to make tightening internal controls and reforming hiring procedures a top priority.

Among those arrested were two police officers, a recreation center director, a public school teacher brought up on child pornography charges and former general services department deputy director Timothy Wanamaker, who pleaded guilty to stealing about $30,000 when he held a post in Buffalo, N.Y.

Alexandria has not been immune from previous incidents of employee wrongdoing, but the city isn’t known for malfeasance, said resident Bud Miller, former president of Alexandria Taxpayers United and a security professional.

“We should be at a higher standard, particularly as [officials] continue to raise our taxes,” Miller said. “Corruption has no place in Alexandria. We don’t have the tradition of corruption, like ‘honest graft’ in Chicago or anything like that. It really should not be occurring in this jurisdiction to the extent that it has.”

Officials say the slew of cases has forced them to reexamine their hiring practices, money handling procedures and overtime approval policies.

In the wake of the arrest of a Chinquapin Recreation Center employee accused of stealing from a register in August, multiple staff members will now verify cash transactions, said Bruce Johnson, who served then as acting city manager.

And there are new procedures in place to deter employees from taking unearned overtime pay after police charged a human resources employee with embezzlement for doing just that.

Johnson was preparing to end his tenure at the city’s helm when Wanamaker informed his supervisor he had pleaded guilty to stealing government dollars while on the job in New York.

An outside consultant vetted Wanamaker — and declared him clean — in 2010 despite lingering questions in Buffalo about his conduct. Wanamaker used a city-owned credit card to pay for personal travel, entertainment and transportation costs.
Hindsight is 20/20, Johnson said, but they’re trying to learn from the incident.

“What we did back in [2010] is what we normally would have done,” Johnson said. “That’s why we’re looking at our hiring processes. In this case it would be for the senior employees … We’ll spend a little bit more money, especially when there are some signs like excessive travel — that might be a trigger for more investigation.”

Until the city’s hiring practices are overhauled, Miller doesn’t see an end to municipal employees facing criminal charges.

“The first thing you do and most important thing you do is [look at] the hiring decision process,” he said. “That is the most important decision a private business makes and the most important decision a government makes. Once they get through that barrier, there are all sorts of opportunities and it’s a lot more difficult to detect.”

City Manager Rashad Young has highlighted the issue as a priority as he takes the reins at City Hall. Despite the spike in arrests, Young doesn’t believe the problem is endemic in Alexandria.

“I don’t think what exists is a rampant problem,” he said. “It isn’t a runaway train of malfeasance. We want to make sure [residents] have confidence in what we do and how we do it.”

But similarly-sized cities have fewer issues. Sunnyvale, Calif., a city of about 141,000, has seen just seven full-time employees and four temporary employees brought up on criminal charges since 2008.

A spokesman for Springfield, Mass., a city of roughly 153,000, said no city employee had been arrested in the last four years, though the Springfield Republican reports at least one municipal worker, a retired police officer, faces assault charges from an on-the-job incident in 2009.

The city’s action in the face of the arrests has been swift, but improvement is needed, Young said. He added city employees depend on the public’s trust and they need to be reminded of the responsibility given to them.

But neither Young nor Miller sees any way of completely stamping out malfeasance, whether it’s City Hall or a corporate boardroom.

“There is always going to be a few wolves in amongst the sheep,” Miller said. “It’s incumbent upon the managers and leaders — and this is not a partisan issue — it’s incumbent on them to seek out those wolves and clean [them] up.”

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