Two days after Office of Emergency Management (OEM) director Ryan Rockabrand left the county to work for FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), the Auditor-Controller’s Office publicized its months-long study detailing numerous deficiencies with the department’s billing process. The internal audit was prompted by accusations from former employees; four of five experienced managers left the department in less than a year. Joe Guzzardi, one former employee, filed a fair-employment complaint last year, and in January the county settled with him for $134,000.
The audit found “small to medium inaccuracies” spanning across all of the programs, Auditor-Controller Robert Geis said. It was limited to records for reimbursement of federal and state grant monies, including the Homeland Security Grant Program, Emergency Management Performance Grant, Nuclear Power Plant Program, and oil and gas permits. Of the department’s $1.67 million, about $1 million derives from grants. (Theoretically, should the feds catch wind of billing inaccuracies, the county could be on the hook for the entire grant.)
Among many things, auditors found the following: An employee said he or she was instructed by management to code time to oil and gas programs — to the tune of about $5,000 — when that time should be covered by other funds. Auditors also found missing invoices for $23,587 in claims submitted to granting agencies. Auditors found an employee was asked to file reimbursement documents for employees who had already left the department.
In addition, employees claimed funds — amounting to $166,555 — before matching costs had been incurred, the report stated. Employees billed two full-time staff salaries to oil and gas programs rather than using detailed billing codes for time associated with specific activities such as developing a response plan or conducting drills.
The department has long been scrutinized. Grand Jury reports dating back to 2006 found it was ill equipped to handle a major disaster, among many problems. As a field, emergency management is not well understood. Emergency managers develop contingency plans for tragedies, perform drills, and work behind the scenes during disasters to facilitate policy choices. They also deal with recovery afterwards.
The problem in part, Geis said, was that department staff had difficulty locating documents. “The records weren’t intact,” he said. “Ryan probably inherited poor processes. He didn’t have a chance to fix them or he didn’t fix them. He had other high-level things that he was doing,” Geis said. “I don’t think grant compliance and reporting were high up on his list when he started.” He added the department has “got to admit [its] mistakes, figure them out, fix them, and move on.”
Previously, OEM was overseen by the County Fire Department; now it’s under the County Executive Office. The county’s Assistant CEO Renée Bahl said there is no current plan to make an organizational change. Based on the audit’s recommendations, she said, the department will respond and change some of its practices. “First of all, we can always improve,” she said. She stressed that internal audits are not unusual. Bahl took exception to the notion Rockabrand’s departure was just days before the release of the report. “Ryan announced his resignation five weeks before that; that timing has been very public.”
The department recently hired three new full-time emergency managers. Deputy director Robert Troy is serving as the interim director.