Thursday, January 8, 2015

So Where Does The Buck Stop In Pasadena?

Parson Danny Ray Wooten's Halo of Holy
The underlying theme of the Special Meeting held Monday evening at Pasadena City Hall was, of course, blame assigning. Who exactly is to blame for the 11 years of massive theft committed by Parson Wooten, anyway? Who dropped the ball and enabled so huge a taxpayer rip off?

What should have been an obvious fact somehow never quite came to light that evening. Was it the fault of the City Manager and those in his charge? A City Council that somehow failed to detect any of this for more than a decade? The three elected members of the Municipal Services Committee, which is tasked with overseeing Public Works and other related City Hall bailiwicks? A trio of not quite seeing eye watchdogs that included the Mayor and his until now presumed heir?

Columnist Steven Greenhut (see below) tells us that government in California is generally run on a no consequences basis, and employees who do bad things are often let off the hook and allowed to continue on with their lives as if nothing had ever happened. So when something as immense as the embezzlement of $6.4 million dollars occurs, the elected officials in charge often don't quite know how to deal with it. The act of judging those who work for City Hall is apparently not a comfortable situation for them, and when the crime is so undeniable and obviously immense they seem a little at sea. This is not what they're good at.

Our elected guardians look up from their papers, rub their noses, adjust their seating, then cast worried looks in the direction of the City Attorney and beg for guidance. Who cautiously gives them very little of what they are really asking for.

And while staff instinctively falls back on Process & PowerPoint (which is a bit like a turtle pulling in its head during a time of danger), the question of where exactly the buck actually does stop remains unanswered. Who exactly is at fault? Does anyone in authority have the ability to use it and say something?

We might never really know the answer to any of that. The alleged guilty parties will likely go to jail, which will take some of the pressure off. Many will feel that justice has been served. But who amongst those in charge screwed up? Who missed all of the signs that should have pointed to Parson Danny Ray Wooten's 11 year reign of worry-free theft?

Of course, it doesn't help that there are elections coming up in Pasadena, either. Accountability in the hands of practicing politicians is an Alice in Wonderland experience in the best of times. Bringing into it the strip tease known as running for office only adds to the difficulty level.

Steven Greenhut, writing for San Diego U-T (link), published a prescient column on Dec 31 that helps casts some light on Pasadena's travails. Titled "Report shows state workers acting poorly - Public employees accused of lying and theft face few penalties," it exposes a culture of government employee permissiveness that in my opinion also helped to enable the inevitable Parson Wooten embezzlement extravaganza.

State Auditor Elaine Howle’s latest investigative report detailing whistleblower-prompted “allegations of improper governmental activities” could be easy to shrug off given the reality of the human condition. Some people behave badly, whether they work for state government or anywhere else.

But the report’s “substantiated” allegations – involving the “theft of state funds, waste of public resources, improper … travel expenses” and the like – provide a window into the way California agencies deal with, or don’t deal with, problem employees.

The first case involves a manager at the State Water Resources Control Board who the report said embezzled $3,500 in state funds and then proceeded to cover it up.

She directed “a moving company under contract with the state to take the surplus property to a local recycling center … instructing the movers to obtain payment in cash. … She then took the cash to her house,” according to the report. After finding out about the investigation, the manager filed “a police report stating that someone had broken into her personal vehicle and stolen the funds.”

Again, people do bad things. The department’s bureaucratic response, however, is disturbing. After being caught, the manager repaid $2,518, but “still owes the water board $994 in recycling proceeds.” Her punishment: “Prior to the completion of our investigation, the manager transferred to another state agency.”

The auditor recommends “reasonable efforts to recover” the money and contacting the agency she now works for “to make certain the manager is not in a position to misuse or embezzle additional state funds.” It also suggests a new recycling policy. The water board agreed to implement these ideas, including the no-duh suggestion of contacting the district attorney.

Had an employee in the private sector been suspected of embezzlement, that employee almost certainly would have been fired and probably arrested – not transferred to a different department. In the bureaucracy, it takes a time-consuming investigation to get officials even thinking about some obvious responses.

“For a misbehaving public employee, it’s a win-win situation,” said Richard Rider, chairman of the San Diego Taxfighters. “If you get caught, the downside is very little.” Given the report, Rider’s statement doesn’t appear to be an exaggeration.

In another case, an Employment Development Department employee lived in Sacramento but had a job based in the Los Angeles area. Her supervisors inaccurately designated her work headquarters as Sacramento, according to the report, thus allowing her to improperly collect almost $27,000 in travel expenses. The result: She retired from the state and began collecting her pension. The auditor suggested training ideas to fix the problem. Seriously.

In yet another case in the report: “After lying to his manager about needing to telecommute so that he could care for his ailing mother, a full-time employee at the Department of Industrial Relations … took advantage of his manager’s neglect of his supervisory duties ... to work a second full-time job." He was paid more than $12,000 for hours he never worked. So the department placed a memorandum in his personnel file and gave his neglectful manager a “counseling memorandum … rather than an adverse action.”

The latter would have been “too harsh,” officials said, given the department lacked “an effective telecommuting policy.”

These cases were investigated under the California Whistleblower Protection Act, but the situation it documents is common. In one case revealed in 2013, the auditor reported that Caltrans employees falsified data testing the safety of California bridges – something that could have had life-threatening consequences had any bridge been prone to failure.

One employee “linked to much of the falsified data” was allowed “to retire with full benefits,” the Sacramento Bee reported, noting it will be hard to stop him from getting other state employment given “all references to (his) misconduct were removed from his personnel records.”

The state needs more oversight, but Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, announced this month he is shutting down the Senate’s Office of Oversight and Outcomes, which reported on the misuse of state funds at various agencies. Then again, what’s the difference? Employees caught misbehaving don’t seem to face serious consequences. 

Dueling Banjos

Councilmember Terry Tornek is running for Mayor of PeeDee this year, and his position in the Parson Wooten Embezzlement Scandal is a unique one. Is Terry the resourceful hero that uncovered the crime as he often claims, or the feckless and distracted Councilmember who sat on the Committee that oversaw Parson Wooten's den of iniquity and never once during his previous six years in that saddle called into question a single bogus invoice?

Ross S. Selvidge, Ph.D., described somewhere as being "an elected trustee of the Pasadena Area Community College District," wrote to the Pasadena Star News with this load of worries on his mind:

The lesson here is that taxpayers' last official line of defense against malfeasance or just plain incompetence  and inefficiency in government is their elected officials' willingness to ask critical questions, not settle for evasion or equivocation, and to enforce accountability. Any elected official who puts up with complacency or just the "following of procedures" is failing in his or her duty and is a recipe for disaster.

Pasadena is very fortunate that Tornek had not only the personal expertise to detect a potential serious problem with materials presented to him but also, and just as important, the persistence to require that the questions he had be answered.

In the case at hand, when Tornek raised his serious concerns, the city employee who is now accused of embezzlement had already been out on administrative leave for several months for an "unrelated personnel matter" (and was soon after terminated). That employee was no longer even in a position to continue with the alleged embezzlement. But if Tornek had not sensed the potential irregularities when he did and then insisted on answers to his questions, it is possible that the alleged embezzlement may never have been discovered and this all might have just faded into obscurity.

We must have elected officials who have both the expertise to ask critical questions and the strength of character to not shrink from pressing for answers when their duty requires it.

There is another point of view, which was expressed in the form of a couple of comments Monday evening on this blog:


My personal opinion? Dr. Selvidge is apparently a man with rather low performance standards for elected officials. But then again, isn't he is one himself? And given some of the recent bizarre woes at PCC, not exactly a stranger to administrative bafflement?

But you might disagree with that.

http://sierramadretattler.blogspot.com

40 comments:

  1. How did our society become so sick? The sickness pervades everything. We can't lable terrorists, terrorists. Our politicians, whom we elect, lie, cheat, and steal on a daily basis. We must try very hard to be PC so as not offend anyone, yet they can still lie, cheat, steal and kill us. Very depreeing!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wow, Debbie Downer!

      Delete
    2. These are not the best of times, friend.

      Delete
  2. Selvidge had the same campaign mgr. as Tornek, Martin Truitt of Pasadena.

    What a coincidence that Dr. Selvidge should write a letter that lauds Terry Tornek. Really, what are the odds?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Now this is an interesting fact I did not know. So, Terrible Terry, School Board Member Scott Phelps and Ross Selvidge all use the same political consultant? And all are calling Terrible Terry the hero. Who knew? Who is running Tyronne Hampton's campaign for City Council....someone just told me it is Torknek's guy. Is that true?>

      Delete
    2. Have we heard from the dogcatcher yet?

      Delete
    3. 9:58. Yes, Truitt is working for Hampton, too.

      Delete
    4. Martin is a very busy boy.

      Delete
    5. I guess we should expect to get a lot of postcards.

      Delete
    6. More than Johnny Harabedian sent out in 2012? wow

      Delete
    7. Sad to say, but a picture of a candidate in nice clothes with smiling family members can win you a lot more votes than any positions taken on the issues. Throw in a card with cops or firemen and you're golden.

      Delete
    8. I believe Truitt also ran Vicki Rusnak's failed attempt to defeat Chris Holden. Ms. Rusnak sent out enough flyer to get the post office out of debt (well, almost).

      Delete
    9. Is it time to bring back the sandwich board yet?

      Delete
  3. Beck should be fired immediately. Then a new city manager brought in to do a thorough investigation.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That is the narrow view. Not to say it is wrong. But a bigger picture look would take in the entire culture. Including elected officials.

      Delete
    2. Michael Beck makes over $300,000 in salary plus benefits. Damn right he should be fired. Why hasn't he????

      Delete
    3. Because he is running the kind of damage control operation the people who actually run that city want him to do. The last thing they want is getting residents involved in their operations. WTFU.

      Delete
    4. IDGAF!!!! Michael Beck needs to be fired!!!! The media is starting to put the pressure.

      Delete
  4. It can't be easy running for office and claiming you've done the exact opposite of what actually happened. Then again, you do see that sort of thing in politics from time to time.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. So the elected officials were against effective oversight before they were for it?

      Delete
    2. They were always for effective oversight. And when they find out what that is they're going to do it. Don;t you worry.

      Delete
  5. The buck didn't stop anywhere. It and all of its friends flew out the door. All $6.4 million of them.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Guess we need to increase taxes to cover that!

      Delete
    2. Yes. That would be a best practice.

      Delete
    3. After we pay a consultant $50,000. Like the water lady in Sierra Madre.

      Delete
    4. A best practices accountability process transparency consultant would be the best.

      Delete
  6. So where is the good man of the cloth now? In jail? I am sure that was covered in an earlier blog, but I didn't catch that detail.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Still in jail raising bail is what I have heard. According to the Star News that was a neat $1.75 million. Or a bit less than a third of what he stole.

      Delete
    2. Would it be OK if he took some of the money he embezzled and used it to post bail?

      Delete
    3. I don't know. Wouldn't that make Mayor Bogaard a bail bondsman? I'm not certain he'd want to see that on his resume'.

      Delete
    4. Big Bill's Bonds. $0 dollars down with absolutely no interest for 11 years.

      Delete
    5. Never any interest, BTW.

      Delete
    6. You'd think after Monday there would be some interest.

      Delete
  7. Hunh. I posted a link to this article in the comments section of Andre' Coleman's column on the Pasadena Weekly site and it disappeared. I'm going to try and help them through their technical website issues and post it again.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Some free speech is freer than others.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You'd think that with everything going on in France right now the Weekly would be more concerned about the free speech issue.

      Delete
    2. The real cost of free speech is often paid by the listener.

      Delete
    3. ......and the artists.

      Delete
  9. The Pasadena Star News just uncovered more sleaze from City Manager Michael Beck and those idiots at the City Council.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Mike Beck and Ms. Foster have created a terrible work environment. Taking from the workers to feed his fat wallet. They both need to be let go. They are in this together from Riverside and now to Pasadena. They are like used recycled garbage that needs to go. Come on citizens, come together and get these fools out.

    ReplyDelete