County officials abused take-home car program, audit says

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Local,Maryland,Rachel Baye
Take-home vehicles in the Montgomery County and Prince George's County park and planning commission were poorly managed and abused, with vehicles assigned to employees who didn't need them and employees paying little to none of the taxes owed on the vehicles, an audit found.

"During our audit we found numerous weaknesses as a result of inadequate controls, confusion, and a lack of proper oversight and accountability, which can result in increased costs, mismanagement, and abuse," Abinet Belachew, chief of the Internal Audit Division of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, wrote in the report.

The audit, which looked at fiscal years 2009 and 2010, also found that 43 employees did not have any contracts for their cars, required by the commission's policies.

Protections against unauthorized people using commission-owned fuel were also lax. Belachew tested this by having one of his staff, who was not authorized to use commission fuel, attempt to fill his personal vehicle with commission gas. He was successful four times.

Sample of M-NCPPC Parks Department 2011 take-home vehicle assignments
TitleDepartmentCarPurchase Price
DirectorDirector's Office2009 Ford Escape Hybrid$28,422.03
Deputy directorDirector's Office2007 Honda Civic Hybrid$22,895
Division chiefSouthern Region2008 Ford Escape Hybrid$25,378.54
Division chiefEnterprise Division2003 Chevrolet Malibu$12,515
Park Police commission supervisorPark Police2001 Chevrolet Impala$19,869
Executive directorDepartment of Human Resources and Management2006 Chevy Impala$18,150.55
Building and grounds maintenance superintendentDepartment of Human Resources and Management1997 Chevy 2500$28,600
Secretary-treasurerFinance Department1997 Chevy Lumina$16,200
General counselLegal Department2005 Chevy Tahoe$29,719.87

One of the more costly issues found was a failure to pay the appropriate taxes due on the vehicles. Employees are supposed to pay taxes on the miles driven for personal use, such as commuting to and from work. However, many employees were underreporting the taxes they owed, and at least three did not pay taxes at all.

In the cases of many vehicle assignments, "it is highly questionable whether the assignment of the take-home vehicle serves the best interest of the Commission," the audit found. The assignment of vehicles appeared arbitrary, with some people getting cars while others doing the same job did not.

At the end of fiscal 2009, the Montgomery County Planning Board had more than 540 fleet vehicles -- originally costing the county $15,639,915 -- while the Prince George's County Planning Board had more than 786 vehicles -- originally costing the county $19,696,000. Using these 1,326 vehicles were 2,000 employees.

Between the audit's initial completion in March of last year and last August, the bicounty agency reformed its policies regarding take-home vehicles and reduced the number of cars, an August memo shows.

The audit was initially hidden from the public. In response to an October request by The Washington Examiner, M-NCPPC General Counsel Adrian Gardner said the audit was covered under attorney-client privilege and was not subject to the Maryland Public Information Act.

"You don't get to do an audit and then hide the results," said Montgomery County Councilman Marc Elrich, D-at large. "I got a copy of the audit. It was so heavily redacted you couldn't even tell what they were talking about."

On Thursday, members of the Prince George's and Montgomery county councils demanded the audit released, and the agency reluctantly agreed.

rbaye@washingtonexaminer.com

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Rachel Baye

Staff Writer - Education
The Washington Examiner