- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 20, 2001

The D.C. auditor yesterday said money missing in the towing, seizure and sale of abandoned vehicles may have been stolen by untrained, unsupervised employees of the Abandoned and Junk Vehicle Division.
Those shortages averaged $30,000 each of the past three years and totaled an estimated $300,000 over the past decade, said Auditor Deborah K. Nichols.
"This matter has been referred to the Office of the Inspector General for further investigation," Ms. Nichols told the D.C. Council's Committee on Public Works and Environment.
If the investigation indicates employees embezzled or stole money, the inspector general likely will present the matter to the U.S. Attorney's Office to prosecute, Ms. Nichols said.
The audit, however, also stated the unaccounted money may have resulted from poor management, improper accounting procedures, inefficient computers and inadequate, untrained personnel. The audit criticized almost all of the operations of the Abandoned and Junk Vehicle Division.
"I honestly believe there was no illegal activity on the part of any employee," said Leslie Hotaling, a 22-year employee who took over as director of the Department of Public Works in May. She added that the $300,000 had not been confirmed.
As a result of the audit, radical changes are being made, Ms. Hotaling said. The 48 employees are being repositioned, proven financial procedures are in place for the twice-monthly auctions where shortages may have occurred, and a new, secure computer program will be ready by next summer.
The present computer is "abysmal," Ms. Hotaling said, expressing the belief that some abandoned vehicles were left on the streets for as long as 100 days because the complaints "fell out of the system."
The 85-page audit, which began in February 2000, was summarized into 14 findings and 22 recommendations.
The findings included criticism of untrained cashiers alone in insecure offices who read newspapers and magazines during auctions of abandoned vehicles. It was recommended that a written agreement be made between the Metropolitan Police Department and the Abandoned and Junk Vehicle Division that two officers be present at each auction, with one officer stationed in the cashier's office.
During the three years audited, an average of $79,951 was collected per auction in 1998. That average dropped to $66,489 in 1999, and $52,161 last year.
Many of the problems had been outlined in a series of stories published in The Washington Times, said committee Chairman Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican.
Mrs. Schwartz gave photographs to Ms. Hotaling of some vehicles abandoned on the street, some vandalized, and spoke about a van that "has been there at least six months."
"Many are dangerous. Secondly, they are eyesores," Mrs. Schwartz said, agreeing with council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, that unlocked vehicles or those with broken windows were easily accessible and "a child could get killed."
Unlike other city employees who handle cash, the Abandoned and Junk Vehicle Division cashiers are not bonded, the audit pointed out. Ms. Hotaling said that is being remedied.
The audit recommended raising the daily impoundment fee from $10 for owners to get their vehicles back. The increase could help pay the costs of the division, which now operates at a deficit. Prince George's and Montgomery counties charge $25 daily. Fees in New York, Baltimore, Atlanta and Los Angeles range from $35 to $50 daily.
Council member Adrian Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat, said numerous used-car lots and garages abandon vehicles that they cannot repair or sell.
Ms. Hotaling said many abandoned vehicles come from Montgomery and Prince George's counties. She suggested that the District assess fines on owners of vehicles abandoned on the streets.

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