- The Washington Times - Friday, June 8, 2001

The D.C. Department of Public Works "artificially inflated" performance statistics for removing abandoned vehicles from city streets, typically waiting 24 days almost three times the legally mandated period, a government report states.
Cars that block travel lanes or rot on residential streets are to be towed within seven to 10 days, according to the "scorecard" performance goal set by Mayor Anthony A. Williams.
But DPWs Abandoned and Junk Vehicle Division missed that goal most of the time, a report issued by the Office of the D.C. Auditor found.
The wait has been as long as 45 days "in a significant number of cases," and sometimes junk cars sat for more than 100 days, the report states.
While officials delayed towing abandoned cars, they also were tardy in resolving 3,300 complaints about the vehicles: "It appears that failed to respond within a reasonable time, if at all, to 3,300 abandoned and junk vehicle complaints," the report says.
The division also "artificially inflated" its performance statistics for removal of abandoned vehicles from city streets by counting cars taken from one impound lot to another, the report found.
The division actually towed about 4,225 vehicles last fiscal year, but claimed it moved more than 8,000, an escalation of "as much as 51 percent to 55 percent," the report states.
Abandoned vehicles were first towed to the Brentwood impoundment lot in Northeast and owners had 14 days to claim them. The cars then were transferred to Blue Plains impoundment lot in Southeast and owners have at least another 14 days and as many as 45 days total to claim them before they are auctioned, say DPW officials.
Over the three years reviewed by auditors, DPW officials "inappropriately included" 11,475 vehicle transfers between lots as abandoned or junked cars towed from the streets, the report states.
That method "raises questions of whether a significant portion of (the divisions) resources were used … to help manage space at the Brentwood Impoundment Lot, rather than focus these resources on the removal of abandoned and junk vehicles from District streets and neighborhoods."
DPW spokeswoman Mary Myers said officials have not decided whether they will continue using the vehicle counting method auditors called "inappropriate."
"Thats yet to be determined, how the measurement is actually going to be tracked," she said. "The working model here has been that Brentwood was a way station on the way to the faraway storage and auction site."
DPW officials have been working with the mayors office for several months on a plan to improve the operations and management of the division, Ms. Myers said.
She declined to answer other specific questions, and said both DPW Director Leslie A. Hotaling and Gwen Mitchell, the official in charge of the Abandoned and Junk Vehicles Division, were unavailable for comment.
But a written response from Ms. Hotaling, which was included in the report, said the auditors analysis, based on "a random sample of 1% of vehicles towed, is statistically insignificant."
The auditors office examined performance, management and financial data from October 1997 through September 2000. Officials also reviewed financial records between 1990 and last year.
The report found that more than $300,000 in abandoned car auction revenue was unaccounted for because of the divisions basic accounting practices and record-keeping problems.
Because the division has poor financial control and lack of oversight, it cant catch possible embezzlers, the report states.
Shortages could be a result of error, "employee embezzlement, and/or … thefts resulting from collusion between a cashier and a bidder," the Office of the D.C. Auditor found.
The division "suffered undetected financial losses that may have been the result of negligence or employee misconduct, if not both."
"The losses regularly occurred without detection and without the benefit of any measure of accountability," and were as high as $30,000 a year, the report states.
Employees not involved with cash handling "were allowed unfettered access to the area where cash was collected."
Cashiers "were free to fraternize" with other employees and "to read newspapers and magazines while performing their cashier functions," the report states. Those cashiers never underwent criminal background checks, and there were no restrictions on who had access to the money.
The report faults the D.C. Treasurers Office, upper ranks of the public works department and the Office of the Chief Financial Officer for never reviewing revenue collections or trying to reconcile discrepancies.
As a result, the D.C. Office of Inspector General has initiated its own probe of the revenue discrepancies.
Pamela D. Graham, the chief financial officer assigned to DPW, disputed the auditors estimates that such a large amount was unaccounted for, saying the report didnt back the numbers. She conducted her own audit and found "variances, but on a much smaller scale."
She said she could not give an estimate of that variance.
Ms. Graham said she ordered an audit when she arrived at DPW just before the auditors office began its review and she started making changes. But, she said, "we did fall short in not going back as quickly to see if all the recommendations were made as quickly."
For the past four months, two of her staffers have been present at every auction to ensure proper cash handling.

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