Government accountability can be hard 

click to enlarge The state is trying to find the culprits behind the shoddy bolts on the Bay Bridge, but there’s no guarantee the bridge boors will be made to answer. - MIKE KOOZMIN/2011 S.F. EXAMINER FILE PHOTO
  • Mike Koozmin/2011 S.F. Examiner file photo
  • The state is trying to find the culprits behind the shoddy bolts on the Bay Bridge, but there’s no guarantee the bridge boors will be made to answer.

When the news broke last week that the Internal Revenue Service had inappropriately reviewed the tax-exempt status of various far-right groups, an immediate cry went out for heads to roll — and they did, as acting IRS Commissioner Steven T. Miller was ousted Wednesday. It was a natural and rational response to a profound breach of public trust.

Right here in the Bay Area, we have our own disaster with the Bay Bridge bolt blunder. On Tuesday, the Transportation and Housing Committee of the California Senate held the first public hearing to determine the responsible parties. Because, of course, someone should be fired.

The hearing itself was actually about two subjects, the bridge failure and a March report on Caltrans by the state auditor, Elaine Howle.

The senators rushed through the auditor’s presentation because they wanted to get to the big, dramatic issue of the new Bay Bridge. But the auditor’s report was an excellent example of how impossible it is to fire anyone in the civil service who does something that actually warrants that response.

In response to a whistle-blower report in 2009, the auditor was called in to investigate allegations of falsification of data at Caltrans. Why did it take so long to finalize the report? Because Caltrans delayed producing information, and when it did provide it, the data was not presented in a usable form.

Step 1 is delay, and Step 2 is denial.

Eventually, the auditor found that two employees had falsified their timesheets to receive 267 hours of overtime. According to the report, at first Caltrans denied that the overtime was fake, but the auditor proved it by showing that the employees’ equipment was not in use when they claimed to have been working.

The auditor also proved that one of those two employees falsified data for tests he was paid for but did not conduct. They also took scrap metal belonging to Caltrans to their supervisors’ house where they used it to build a gate. The supervisor is the only person who was fired.

As for the two employees?

One employee negotiated a settlement whereby he was able to resign with his pension and did not have to repay the overtime.

The other employee did not repay the overtime, either. He was suspended but is back with the department.

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Melissa Griffin

Melissa Griffin

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