Employees in the Census Bureau’s hiring office bilked the government out of $1.1 million in pay they never earned, broke government rules by hiring friends and tried to intimidate whistleblowers who ratted them out, according to a new inspector general’s report Thursday that said supervisors even “led” the misconduct.
The worst of the employees overcharged for at least 1,277 hours, collecting nearly $65,000 for time that wasn’t actually worked. Another better-paid employee charged for 890 hours not worked, collecting more than $85,000, and still another collected $74,488 for 478 hours never worked — at an hourly wage of more than $155.
All told, 40 employees in the office — more than half of the workers during the time examined by the Commerce Department Office of Inspector General — were found to have claimed bogus hours worked.
The Census Bureau has reacted forcefully, saying employees named in the report who have access to “sensitive” systems were put on immediate leave. The agency also vowed to use whatever legal means it can to try to get the money back from the dishonest employees.
“Any employees who allegedly falsified timesheets and betrayed the trust of the American people will be held personally responsible to the fullest extent of the law,” Bureau Director John H. Thompson said in a statement.
Many of the employees would show up late and leave early while claiming a full day’s work, while others abused their telework arrangement to run errands or go to doctor’s appointments — often with the knowledge of supervisors, one of whom told investigators it wasn’t their responsibility to oversee the accuracy of workers’ timesheets.
Nine employees notched more than 100 full work days each over the last four years, the investigation found.
The employees would also look the other way when contractors for the hiring office billed for time they didn’t work, either, investigators said in the report, which portrayed an office reeling from a poor work ethic and retaliation against those who complained.
At one office party one of the employees who was bilking the government held a knife to cut a cake, made a stabbing motion and warned, “This is for who went to the OIG,” investigators said.
“In light of the widespread misconduct committed by CHEC employees identified in this report, the apparent lack of internal controls on the quality of CHEC employees’ work and deliberate bypassing of the unit’s existing controls is disturbing,” the inspector general said.
The investigators recommended nine of the worst-behaving employees be fired.
One employee was charged with making background checks on another employee with whom he’d allegedly had sex, while another hired a girlfriend as a Census contractor, then spent more than a year trying to get that friend’s son hired at the Census Bureau.
One employee wrote in an email that two veterans were above a friend in line for a job, “so we need to get them out of the way first. I try[sic] to call you tomorrow and go over things.”
Investigators also found a number of employees who hired friends’ relatives, and many of those also engaged in time and attendance fraud.
Mr. Thompson said the Census has already begun making changes such as requiring more rigorous timekeeping and demanding employees go through new training. The agency has also hired an independent auditor to review contracts for office.