Two new reports from the state auditor put the process for investigating allegations of state employee misconduct under the microscope.
In two concurrent reviews, the auditor’s office found that the state has paid out more than necessary to keep employees on leave while they are investigated.
The reviews also found that parts of the process for investigating allegations of misconduct lack documentation, making it difficult to track cases all the way through.
The head of the Human Resources Department initially pushed back against the audit’s findings and recommendations, before softening that stance.
Between 2014 and 2016, the state paid almost $2.9 million to employees who were on temporary leave related to investigations into misconduct allegations across multiple agencies and departments, the audit found.
State Auditor Doug Hoffer said the review found that the state’s investigations are sound but could be improved by increasing the documentation and tracking of each case.
“We found no reason to think that the investigative process is problematic,” Hoffer said. “There were some recordkeeping issues.”
He said the state might be able to save money by taking some employees off leave sooner once it becomes clear they won’t be fired because of alleged misconduct.
“These are real dollars, and I don’t think Vermonters, understandably, would be very happy to know state workers are being paid to stay home one day longer than necessary,” Hoffer said.
One report focuses on the Agency of Human Services, where there were a total of 418 cases of alleged misconduct across the agency’s six departments through 2014, 2015 and 2016. The agency had a total of 3,547 employees at the end of that time period.
The highest number of cases over those three years occurred in the Department of Corrections, with 277, followed by the Department for Children and Families with 54 cases. Those departments are the two largest, with more than 1,000 employees each. The Department of Mental Health had the third-highest number of cases, with 41.
Auditors reviewed cases from those three departments stemming from allegations that included rudeness to a member of the public, abuse of an inmate or patient, falsifying records and sexual assault.
Of 55 AHS misconduct cases the auditor’s office selected for review, 29 percent resulted in disciplinary action such as suspension or termination; 22 percent were unsubstantiated; and 16 percent ended in stipulated agreements. Those three outcomes were the most common, the report says.
However, in 13 percent of cases, there was no record of resolution or that sanctions were carried out.
The costs for keeping AHS employees on paid leave during investigations added up to more than $2 million.
In a separate report, auditors looked at five other branches of state government: the Vermont Veterans’ Home, the Department of Buildings and General Services, the Department of Labor, the Department of Public Safety, except sworn officers, and the Agency of Transportation, except the Department of Motor Vehicles.
The report found that during the same period, the state paid about $877,000 in salaries and benefits to 49 employees who were on temporary leave.
The veterans home had an especially high number of investigations: a total of 32 over those three years. Those employees were on leave for an average of 78 days, for a combined collective cost of $573,000. The report says that length of time was affected by state regulations about mistreatment of nursing home residents.
In that report, the auditor’s office made 10 recommendations to the Department of Human Resources, in addition to making recommendations to the individual agencies reviewed.
The Human Resources Department, headed by Commissioner Beth Fastiggi, responded to the audit with a letter asserting that the auditor inappropriately set new standards for critiquing the state. The letter says the department does not intend to implement several of the audit’s recommendations.
Hoffer said it was an unusually sharp response to an audit. “I’ve never seen a response like this,” he said.
However, in an interview Monday, Fastiggi said that overall the audit was “very positive.”
She said the department would look at the audit as a whole and would consider making some changes. In recent years, the department adopted a new technology system for tracking cases, which will continue to improve data collection going forward, she said.
“There is no doubt that there is improvements that we can make to our process, but I want to make sure that in doing so we maintain the good work and the quality we have done in the past and you can see in the results we’ve had,” she said.
Fastiggi argued that the state’s process is already sound.
If misconduct cases are not resolved internally, they eventually go before the Vermont Labor Relations Board and then to the state court system. She said the state tends to have a high rate of success when cases go that far, which she argued is a testament to the quality of the investigations into misconduct allegations.
Concerning the salary paid to employees on leave, she said it is ideal to minimize the time someone is out of the workplace. However, she said there are reasons to keep an employee out while a review takes place, and she noted that employees who are members of the union must be paid while out.
“Obviously we would like to pay our employees for when they’re working,” Fastiggi said. “We do need to maintain the integrity of the investigation, and we do seek to minimize the time employees are placed in that leave status.”
Steve Howard, executive director of the Vermont State Employees’ Association, said he was glad the auditor focused on the issue of misconduct allegations.
For one thing, he said, the financial costs associated with paying employees while they are out are substantial and deserve scrutiny. That time of uncertainty about an employee’s future also takes a toll on the person and fellow workers, he said.
In general, Howard said, misconduct cases tend to drag on.
“It takes far too long,” Howard said. “It shouldn’t take as long as it does.”
Correction: This story initially stated that the auditor reviewed the Department of Public Service in one report. The report actually reviewed the Department of Public Safety.