- The Washington Times - Monday, May 17, 2004

D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services officials under former Chief Ronnie Few mishandled millions of dollars worth of contracts and used department credit cards and petty cash accounts for unauthorized expenditures — including paying for parking tickets, salary advances and purchases at a steak shop.

The questionable contracts and purchases are detailed in a recently released 26-page review by the D.C. inspector general of credit-card records and contract files from 2000 through 2003.

Investigators audited 25 random contracts, worth a total of $4.2 million, of the 890 contracts valued at $46.9 million that went through the department during that time period.

“Our review … disclosed problems with all 25,” the report said. “As a result, there was no assurance that the District received the goods and services contracted for, [no assurance] that payments were made in accordance with contract terms and [no assurance] that sole-source awards and other vendor selections were made in compliance with regulations.”

According to the report, 23 of the 25 contracts lacked documentation showing that the contract items were paid for or received. The audit also showed that two of the contracts were improperly “sole-sourced,” or awarded without competitive bid, and that 10 of the contracts had no supporting documentation showing that vendors provided the best price available.

For 15 of the 25 contracts, investigators were unable to validate that goods and services were paid for and delivered.

The audit also found that petty cash funds within the fire department were used for unauthorized purchases.

Under D.C. law, such accounts cannot contain more than $500 and only can be used for purchases of $150 or less.

The audit revealed that one account contained as much as $3,000 and was used to improperly pay for T-shirts, business cards, salary advances and a subscription to The Washington Times for Chief Few.

Among the improper expenditures were two checks totaling $305 to the D.C. Treasurer for parking tickets. It was not clear whether the tickets were issued to department vehicles or private vehicles.

Aside from the relatively small purchases from the petty cash funds, the audit revealed that buying prohibited items on department credit cards and splitting purchases to avoid daily spending limits became a routine practice within the department.

In one case, an unidentified employee within the department’s public information office spent $5,000 on food in Maryland and Virginia grocery stores, wholesale clubs and a steak shop, Murry’s Steaks in Upper Marlboro, over a six-month period.

Purchases of meals, entertainment or food on a department credit card are prohibited; yet, in some cases, supervisors approved the purchases without ever seeing purchase receipts.

In May 2002, the department’s research and development director charged $12,829 to cater an EMS Week event and the department’s annual picnic.

“Again, there was a supervisor’s approval in the records, even though food and entertainment are prohibited uses of a purchase card,” the report said.

It also says the catering costs were split into increments of $2,000 to bypass spending limits.

The audit reviewed spending practices on 22 of the department’s 37 credit cards and found that 15 cardholders had intentionally split purchases and eight had purchased prohibited items.

The audit does not reveal the cardholders by name.

The contracts listed in the report are undated, but all the documented cases of misspending occurred before May 2002, when Chief Few resigned and was replaced by Chief Adrian H. Thompson.

Chief Few resigned amid questions about inflated credentials on his resume and inaccuracies on the resumes of his top appointees.

During his two-year tenure as chief of the 1,900-member, $150 million-a-year department, the department’s fire-suppression fleet fell into disrepair, its radio system proved dangerously inadequate, response times to medical emergencies slowed and morale among employees hit a new low.

In July 2002, a special grand jury in Richmond County, Ga. — whose fire department Chief Few headed before coming to the District — accused Chief Few of establishing slush funds with public money, making illegal promotions, obstructing justice and leaving that department in chaos. No criminal charges have been filed, though the case was referred to a special prosecutor last year.

While acknowledging that some problems have been addressed since the audit began, the report contained recommendations that the department tighten control over spending, reduce artificially inflated limits on credit-card purchases and more thoroughly solicit bids to ensure lower prices for goods and services. It also recommends the fire department further investigate the unauthorized purchases and expenditures and hold employees responsible for the costs.

In an April 19 response to the report, Chief Thompson agreed with the findings and recommendations, noting that “the transactions in question occurred in fiscal years 2001 and 2002.”

“The agency prior to this report, and based on regulations and guidelines developed by the Office of Contracting and Procurement, responded to many of the issues identified in this report,” Chief Thompson said.

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