State bioterrorism workers fired for payroll fraud, misusing vehicles

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
The state BioWatch unit is based in the Cadillac Place building in Detroit.

Lansing — Four state employees and a supervisor in a bioterrorism detection and monitoring unit were either fired or disciplined after an investigation revealed a pattern of overstating hours and misusing government vehicles.

Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Deputy Director Amy Epkey disclosed the disciplinary actions in an investigative report released Friday by the Auditor General's Office, saying the department takes “misuse of state resources seriously."

Four employees in the DEQ’s BioWatch unit routinely took extended lunches and left work early but claimed the hours for payroll purposes, according to the investigative audit report that did not name the workers.

Three regularly misused their state vehicles by driving them for personal use during work shifts, inappropriately parking them at their homes overnight and violating speed limit laws, in one case driving up to 94 mph.

Auditor General Doug Ringler's fraud investigation team launched the probe based on allegations dating back to 2016 in the BioWatch Unit, which is based inside the Cadillac Place in Detroit. The unit is responsible for monitoring air quality to detect and respond to potential bioterrorism attacks under a U.S. Homeland Security program.

“The issue of these employees overstating their hours was allegedly brought to the attention of the unit supervisor on several occasions, but the supervisor did not take meaningful action to address it,” investigators said.

The four employees in question overstated their work hours by $33,873 between January 2017 and June 2018 by failing to exempt personal stops, taking extended lunches early or leaving work early without explanation, according to the investigative report.

One state employee responsible for completing air filter collection routes overstated his work hours an all 18 days that investigators monitored by tracking his vehicle with a GPS device, access card swipes and other data. He claimed up to 4 hours and 45 minutes of overstated hours per day.

That same employee made personal stops in residential or retail shopping areas with his state vehicle on 14 of 18 days, with stops lasting up to three hours.

Another employee who overstated his work hours on more than half of the days he was monitored made personal stops with his work vehicle 15 of 18 days. He also drove the state car on two days that he wasn’t working, and a third employee drove a state car one night after work hours.

State guidelines prohibit state employees from using government vehicles for personal use, and all three workers who did so acknowledged they understood the rules.

As a result of the findings, the state environmental department asked the state Civil Service Commission to conduct its own investigation into alleged payroll fraud and violations of state policies, according Epkey's written response to the auditor general.

“Disciplinary action was issued for five individuals, including dismissal of two employees," she said.

DEQ spokesman Scott Dean said the employee actions did not impact "our mission of protecting the public" but reiterated that the department "takes misuse of state resources seriously."

He did not specify which workers were fired and declined comment on disciplinary steps for the other three, citing ongoing action.

Michigan Civil Service Commission rules require state employees to repay the full amount of overpayments. In addition to firings or disciplinary actions, regulations also allow fraud cases to be referred to the state attorney general, state police or local law enforcement agencies.