The state Executive Ethics Board plans to investigate a new audit finding that a former Department of Ecology spill responder misused state resources, giving nearly 85 ½ hours of free massages to fellow workers last year while being paid by the state.
Auditors looking into a whistleblower complaint found the employee, who worked until April in Ecology’s Bellevue office, had given the massages in an agency wellness room as she worked to meet training requirements for her certificate in that field. The employee also used office computers to set up appointments and sent 406 personal messages on state email – including 271 related to her business – in November and December.
“We will take a look at it. We will request the (audit) working papers and then we’ll take it from there,’’ said Melanie deLeon, executive director of the ethics board, on Monday. “We will start an investigation.”
The auditor’s report was released Monday morning and is linked here. The former employee disputes the findings (see update below).
DeLeon said her cursory review of the auditor’s report shows there was a violation of the Ethics in Public Service Act’s prohibition against use of state resources for personal gain. “What we try to do if we have verified hours they were doing other work on the state’s clock, we would ask for that amount of money back as restitution … That is separate and can be on top of any fine the board puts out,’’ deLeon said.
An excerpt from the auditor’s report:
The subject is attending school to become a massage therapist. She is required to practice a set number of hours on other people to obtain a license. The subject practiced, free of charge, during the day, on other employees of the Agency. Through review of the subject’s email, we determined approximately how many hours were used to give these massages. The subject used the state Outlook system to schedule appointments with other employees for the sole purpose of giving them a massage during the day in the Department of Ecology Health Wellness Room. These massages Washington State Auditor’s Office ranged anywhere from one-half hour to one and one-half hours.
In its response to the auditor’s findings, DOE pledged to take three corrective actions:
1. The Agency will communicate with the management staff in our Northwest Regional Office who was responsible for the supervision of the employee who was the subject of the complaint and the Regional Business Administrator who has oversight for the facility to clarify the agency’s expectations for, and limitations on, the use of office facilities for private purposes.
2. The Agency will develop a scenario example based on the fact pattern of this case that will be added to Attachment A of Ecology’s Executive Policy 15-01, Prohibiting Private Use of State Resources, to provide supervisors and employees with a ready reference regarding the use of facilities for private purposes, as distinct from approved agency wellness program activities.
3. The Agency will issue an agency-wide reminder regarding the agency’s de minimis standard for personal use of the agency’s e-mail and Internet service.
Ecology spokeswoman Sandi Peck said it is typical for an agency to also launch its own investigation once an auditor’s work is completed. It was not immediately clear what actions the agency could take because the employee left in April, but the ethics board has jurisdiction over employees for actions taken while on the state payroll.
“The system is working,” Peck said. “If there is a concern of a fellow employee possibly misusing state resources there is more than one avenue they can take. Filing a whistleblower’s complaint is one of those.’’
The Ecology employee could not be reached immediately to comment.
UPDATE: The former Ecology worker, Shannon M. Cline, said the audit report is an “inaccurate” portrayal of what actually took place. Cline left Ecology in April and now runs a massage practice in Bellevue.
She in a telephone interview that all of her massage work was done “on breaks” with the knowledge of her higher-ups.
“My supervisor knew and was aware, and also the building manager. I was using the room used for wellness,’’ Cline said. “I received no compensation. I never promoted my business. I didn’t even have a business at that point. It was an idea.’’
Cline also said the on-call demands of her Ecology job meant she canceled all but 34 hours of the appointments and that she never was accepting pay or running a business.
Cline said she was aware of the investigation and had seen a draft of the report. Upon learning of the accusations, she said she “was shocked” to learn her actions were considered wrong. “I thought I was doing everything right,” she said.