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Wednesday, 26 January 2011 20:13

DOT probes allegation of fraud in road maintenance contracts

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The Department of Transportation isn’t sure how long it will take to investigate anonymous allegations of fraud among road maintenance contractors and DOT employees in Haywood County, according to a spokesperson for the agency.

A second anonymous letter was distributed last week alleging favoritism by DOT’s maintenance supervisors in awarding contracts for roadwork in Haywood and Jackson counties, prompting DOT officials in Raleigh to ratchet up the caliber of their internal investigation.

Routine maintenance such as cutting brush from roadsides, hauling gravel, cleaning-out ditches and even building secondary roads is not done in house by DOT maintenance crews, but instead is done by private contractors.

The letter alleges that one private contractor who pulls down the lion’s share of the work overbills the DOT, while the DOT maintenance division looks the other way. The letter details several examples of jobs where DOT maintenance supervisors were complicit in overpaying the contractor.

After receiving the first anonymous letter, Joel Setzer, the head of the 10-county division of the DOT that includes Haywood and Jackson, initially assigned someone in his own office to conduct the internal investigation. However, DOT officials in Raleigh have turned it over to the office of inspector general, an autonomous arm of the DOT that handles internal investigations.

“We take every report of any kind that we get very seriously, whether they come from employees internally or people outside DOT,” said Greer Beaty, director of communications for DOT in Raleigh.

The DOT’s office of inspector general is a recent creation under the administration of Gov. Bev Perdue, who has pushed for openness and accountability of state government. It has eight fulltime investigators — seemingly a large staff to do nothing but look into allegations of wrong-doing within a single state agency, but DOT is a massive operation.

DOT has between 12,000 and 14,000 employees, a budget of $4 billion and hundreds of contracts it oversees.

Many allegations don’t pan out. But in the process, the office of inspector general will make recommendations on new ways of doing business, Beaty said.

“There are going to be instances where we can do things better,” Beaty said. “The investigation will point out where we might strengthen a policy or procedure.”

That might indeed be the case with this investigation, where the way in which DOT maintenance divisions award work to contractors will undoubtedly be examined.

“It will be a good time for us to look and say ‘This policy is appropriate,’ or ‘Gosh, we could make this policy stronger by doing this,’” Beaty said.

Investigators are handicapped when looking into anonymous claims, Beaty said.

“There is no way to ask questions or get supporting documentation. We have to start from ground zero and turn over every rock,” Beaty said.

While the letter names DOT maintenance employees and specific contractors, The Smoky Mountain News will not print those names unless the allegations are substantiated.

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