June 05--Some Orange County Transportation Authority employees have been taking advantage of the agency's carpool incentive program to score cash bonuses and paid days off as rewards for low-emission commutes that were never made, an internal audit has found.
Last year, 422 of OCTA's 1,500 employees participated in the "Commuter Club" program by self-reporting how they traveled to work. Employees earned points towards paid days off or cash awards each time they reported commuting to work using carpools, mass transit, or another low-emission alternative to driving alone.
The Commuter Club is OCTA's method of meeting regional air quality rules that require large employers to reduce the air pollution and traffic impacts of employee commutes.
OCTA doled out $150,000 worth of incentive rewards in 2013, according to the audit, including $111,626 to award paid days off and $37,625 for cash awards.
Auditors found that a small number of employees -- the number is not totalled in the audit but as many as 21 employees were accused of the same misreporting -- exploited the agency's honor-based commute reporting system and a lack of oversight to collect awards they didn't actually earn.
"Cursory review and sample testing identified concerns regarding employee eligibility and accuracy of reporting," the auditors said. For example:
--Three employees signed up for the Commuter Club more than 10 times, repeatedly collecting "Welcome Bonus" points for a paid day off. Twenty-one employees received welcome bonuses four or more times.
--An employee reported taking alternative commutes to work on days before he or she was even hired at OCTA.
--Two employees reported commutes every Saturday and Sunday for a year or more.
--Five employees reported alternative commutes to work more than 29 days in a month.
--Three employees "double-dipped" by receiving both Metrolink reimbursements and "Commuter Club" points.
Regional air quality rules do not allow commuting credit for regularly scheduled days off, such as weekends, or paid days off.
The program's losses from the false reporting were estimated at $600 to $2,000 per year from 2004 to 2013 Andy Oftelie, manager of financial planning and analysis at OCTA, said in an interview Tuesday. He said the dollar figures are tiny compared with the agency's $1.2 billion annual budget, but the losses hinted at bigger issues the agency has a responsibility to address.
"From a financial standpoint, I don't think we need to be overly concerned, but when it comes to employee behavior, if there's an honor-based system and if we feel that there are employees exploiting that honor-based system, I think as management we need to take that very seriously," Oftelie said during an OCTA finance committee meeting in February.
"I believe the vast majority of employees did everything (according to) what they thought to be exactly correct," Oftelie said. "That said, I do think there are a handful -- maybe six to 10 cases -- where it looks like there might have been some intentional exploiting there, and we as management need to address it."
It's not clear whether anyone was punished for the behavior. Oftelie said officials reported the few employees suspected of dishonest reporting to their supervisors to handle. He declined to say what -- if any -- disciplinary actions were taken, citing personnel privacy policies.
Oftelie stressed that OCTA had no proof of fraud.
Oftelie said all employees' Commuter Club accounts were adjusted to remove points they shouldn't have received, whether the employee or the reporting system was to blame for the mistake. Five employees ended up with negative balances. Any points those employees earn for alternative commutes will go toward resolving their negative balances.
Already OCTA has tightened system controls and monitoring in the Commuter Club program, eliminating many of the vulnerabilities that allowed abuse, Oftelie said. System improvements will be better able to detect unusual activity and verify that employees actually worked on the days they reported commuting.
OCTA could satisfy the mandate more cheaply by simply paying $59,000 per year to the South Coast Air Quality Management District.
OCTA staff have steadfastly opposed that low-cost option in favor of the $152,000-per year Commuter Club, which they believe sends a message that the authority is leading by example. But, according to auditors, the program has not met state performance targets for at least the last three fiscal years.
OCTA Board Member Pat Bates, a county supervisor, said it looked to her like fixing the existing program and ensuring that it runs correctly could be more trouble than the Commuter Club is worth.
"I understand the policy issue there, that as a transportation agency, doing things that contribute to less congestion and cleaner air are very important," Bates said in February. "But when you have a program with this kind of flawed reporting, and having to develop a new system and not meeting performance metrics that are required, and then creating an incentive program on top of that -- that's a lot to do."
OCTA staff assured board members that the program fixes would not require extensive time and effort, and that they could bring the cost of the program down an estimated $20,000 to $30,000 per year by increasing the number of points required to earn a paid day off -- the program's most expensive reward option.
OCTA will now require participants in the Commuter Club to sign a form agreeing outlining disciplinary action including revocation of points and possible expulsion from the program if they make false reports.
"We don't want the cost of our control to be greater than the benefits it provides," Oftelie said. "So we were trying to strike the right balance."
Contact the writer: email@example.com or 714-796-7024
Copyright 2014 - The Orange County Register