- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The D.C. government has begun firing city workers identified in a probe that found rampant abuse of unemployment benefits by employees in most of the city’s agencies, officials said Wednesday.

Among the 10 worst offenders accused of reaping unlawful benefits, six worked for the D.C. Public Schools and a pair worked for the University of the District of Columbia, D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan said.

Many of the public school employees were bus drivers, he said.

Earlier this week, the city placed about 90 employees suspected of obtaining unemployment benefits while earning income from a city job on administrative leave for 15 or 30 days, depending on his or her agency, position or collective bargaining agreement, according to the Department of Employment Services (DOES).

Another 40 former city employees were accused in the pattern of abuse, which officials say totaled about $800,000 since 2009.

DOES officials were unable Wednesday to provide the exact number of employees who have been terminated so far.

“Everyone will be given due process,” Mr. Nathan said at Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s biweekly press briefing. “We will evaluate the explanations and then we will, on an individual basis, decide what is the appropriate course.”

There is no evidence that any of the accused employees worked together in an organized scheme, Mr. Nathan said.

“So far, the indication is that there is no ringleader, there is no collusion,” he said. “People recognized what they could do and unfortunately took advantage of it.

He said his office will continue to look at the possibility there were “advisers” providing guidance to other employees.

Mr. Nathan’s office will attempt to recoup funds in every case and refer the “most egregious cases” to the U.S. attorney’s office for criminal prosecution.

Mr. Nathan said accused workers may have violated the False Claims Act because they are required to confirm their unemployed status on a frequent basis to receive benefits.

The probe, he said, highlights the need to return some authority to his office, deeming it “a little unfortunate” he has to refer these cases to the U.S. attorney for the District.

“We don’t have the opportunity to prosecute, and it’s something I think that Congress needs to address,” he said.

DOES Director Lisa Mallory said her agency has been investigating the cases for several months and referred many of the cases to the inspector general’s office.

“These individuals were entitled to the unemployment [benefits] at one point,” she said. “What happened was they did not get off unemployment at the appropriate time.”

DOES leveraged federal grants to step up its routine checks for fraud, Ms. Mallory said.

“I want to be clear,” she added; “we did not have the technology before, nor did we have the manpower.”

Mr. Gray acknowledged that safeguards in the unemployment insurance system were “insufficient” and “we’re working on trying to improve those controls so this kind of thing doesn’t happen again.”

Ms. Mallory stressed that unemployment fraud is quite common among private-sector workers and in states across the country.

“This isn’t just unique to the District of Columbia,” she said. “The unemployment insurance program is a complex program by the Department of Labor’s own admission.”

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