State Auditor Doug Hoffer released a pair of audits Monday that reveal woefully inadequate procedures in several state agencies for tracking complaints of employee misconduct.
The audits prompted a dismissive written response from Department of Human Resources commissioner Beth Fastiggi — although in a phone interview Monday morning, she took a much more conciliatory tone.
One of the audits covered complaints in three departments of the Agency of Human Services from 2014 through 2016: the Department of Children and Families, the Department of Mental Health and the Department of Corrections.
The second audit did the same for other state entities: the Agency of Transportation except for the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Department of Buildings and General Services, the Department of Labor and the Vermont Veterans’ Home. It also included complaints involving civilian employees in the Department of Public Safety. (Separate audits were done because AHS conducts its own investigations of employee misconduct, while DHR investigates cases in the five entities covered in the second audit.)
Both audits are sharply critical of how complaints are recorded and documented.
The audits reveal that records are kept only for complaints that result in investigations. Other complaints are not recorded, nor is there any accounting for why those complaints didn’t trigger investigations.
Also, investigations often took a long time to resolve. According to Hoffer, employees who were put on leave pending the outcome of a probe were paid almost $3 million. “We can’t say how much of that could have been avoided, but it appears that some of it could have been avoided,” notes Hoffer.
In general, Hoffer found that record-keeping is “kind of hit or miss.” Some records are digitized, and others exist only on paper.
At the end of the investigative process, the outcome is recorded, but no attempt is made to justify or explain it. Why one person is exonerated while another is suspended or even terminated, we simply don’t know.
In addition, in about 10 percent of investigations, there is no recorded resolution. Or, as Hoffer puts it, “We identified instances where stuff just got lost in the shuffle.”
The Vermont Veterans’ Home was a particularly sore spot, with far more than its share of misconduct investigations and especially poor record-keeping.
Many of the agencies and departments included in the audit are tasked with oversight of vulnerable people, such as the poor, the mentally ill, prison inmates and the elderly. It’s not reassuring to think that misconduct complaints are tossed into a bureaucratic black box, with the record-keeping process from beginning to end a tangle of shoddiness and opacity.
Hoffer says the lack of consistency and transparency leaves state employees in the dark. “They don’t trust the system,” he says. As a result, many employees are reluctant to report instances of misconduct for fear of retaliation, he says.
Typically, the response to a Hoffer audit falls along predictable lines. There is a broad acceptance of the findings, an assertion that some recommendations have already been implemented or are in process, and a promise to seriously consider the rest of the audit.
In her written response, Fastiggi chose another course entirely. Her memo, which is included in Hoffer’s audits, is a stout defense of HR policies, a denial that there is a need for change, and an attack on how the audit was conducted.
In a phone interview, however, her tone was much more in line with the typical response. She characterized the audit as “a valuable tool” that produced “a very positive result.” She asserted that many of Hoffer’s recommendations — wait for it — have already been implemented or are in process.
It must be noted that, verbal conciliations notwithstanding, Fastiggi’s written response is the one that will enter the permanent record. And it remains sharply critical of the audit and protective of the work of her department.
She defended DHR’s investigatory process, which was not within the scope of Hoffer’s audits. His work focused on communication and documentation issues surrounding misconduct investigations.
On that score, Fastiggi acknowledged a need for improvement, but pointed to a new software system being implemented during the period covered by the audit. That system, she said, has improved record-keeping — but the transition period created problems with performance and with the work of the auditors.
When asked if the opacity of the process created uncertainty for employees and the public, she responded with a careful, “I appreciate that comment.” She continued: “I agree it’s important for the public and particularly state employees to have confidence in the process. That is why I think that this audit is a valuable tool, to help us work to improve that.”
The Agency of Human Services’ response to its audit was included in Fastiggi’s memo. It indicates an openness to some of Hoffer’s recommendations — including, notably, a system for tracking all complaints whether they result in investigations or not.
Hoffer’s audit makes clear there’s a need for greater transparency and accountability. Fastiggi’s written response seems to promise little or no effort in that regard. Her verbal message, however, refers to work already done and offers promises of further action. Her goal, she says, is to create a more accountable process that leaves no room for mistrust or misinterpretation.
It remains to be seen how effectively her words translate into action. From the results of Hoffer’s audits, it appears there’s a lot of work to be done.