N.J. toll road workers cash in on millions of dollars in bonuses

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Employees at the state’s two major toll roads were paid $9.7 in extra pay last year for unused sick time, vacation time and holiday bonuses, according to an investigative report in the Asbury Park Press.

Last October, state Comptroller A. Matthew Boxer outlined what he called “$43 million in waste” at the agency including extra pay and bonuses to toll collectors and managers. Boxer said during 2008 and 2009, bonuses alone totaled about $30 million.

Despite the state’s fiscal woes and the scathing report, another $700,000 has been paid out since the report was released.

Some of the payments and bonuses were labeled “snow removal” or “holiday” bonuses, although those employees had already been paid overtime for their work on those days.

In over 30 instances, payouts at retirement exceeded the employees’ actual salaries.

In one example, a district equipment manager making $113,414 retired in June with $134,621 in bonus payments, and a retiring crew supervisor making $88,450 took home an extra $122,082 when he left in April. Both men were at the agency for more than 30 years.

Thomas Feeney, a Turnpike Authority spokesman, said most of the payments were for unused sick time, although separation bonuses of $500 to $600 are given for each year of service when employees retire.

“The Christie administration has said it intends to remove payments like that when new contracts are negotiated this year,” Feeney said.

Now that Christie administration has discussed privatizing toll collection in New Jersey, workers are indicating that they might be agreeable to wage concessions in their next contract.

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GAO report says federal government agencies riddled with duplication and waste

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A report released Tuesday by the non-partisan Government Accountability Office claims Washington “could potentially save billions of taxpayer dollars annually” by “reducing or eliminating duplication, overlap, or fragmentation” in federal government programs.

The GAO report was mandated last year as a provision in a bill that raised the federal debt ceiling.

The GAO report blast the federal government for its inefficiency and duplication of programs.

“This report confirms what most Americans assume about their government. We are spending trillions of dollars every year and nobody knows what we are doing. The executive branch doesn’t know. The congressional branch doesn’t know. Nobody knows,” Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said in a statement Tuesday morning. “This report also shows we could save taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars every year without cutting services.”

Coburn, who pushed for the report, estimated that duplicative spending could save between $100 and $200 billion each year.

“Reducing or eliminating duplication, overlap or fragmentation could potentially save billions of taxpayer dollars annually and help agencies provide more efficient and effective services,” according to the report.

According to FoxNews.com:

The study found 33 areas with “overlap and fragmentation” in the federal government. Among them, it found:

— Fifty-six programs across 20 agencies dealing with financial literacy.

— More than 2,100 data centers — up from 432 a little more than a decade ago — across 24 federal agencies. GAO estimated the government could save up to $200 billion over the next decade by consolidating them.

— Twenty programs across seven agencies dealing with homelessness. The report found $2.9 billion spent on the programs in 2009. “Congress is often to blame” for fragmentation, GAO wrote in this section, explaining that the duplicative programs in multiple agencies cause access problems for potential participants.

— Eighty-two “distinct” teacher-quality programs across 10 agencies. Many of them have “duplicate sub-goals,” GAO said. Nine of them address teacher quality in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

— Fifteen agencies administering 30 food-related laws. “Some of the oversight doesn’t make any sense,” the report stated bluntly.

— Eighty economic development programs.

The report also suggested that cuts could be warranted in the military, and area which has traditionally been off-limits to lawmakers from both parties. It pointed out there  are 130,000 military and government medical professionals, 59 Defense Department hospitals and hundreds of clinics that could be consolidated, resulting in savings in administrative, management and clinical areas.

Information from FoxNews.com

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Chicago School Board presidents give away education monies to charities

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Two former Chicago School Board presidents reportedly gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to charities in which they or family members were involved, with no oversight or approval by fellow board members.

The two executives were Rufus Williams, who served from 2006 through 2009, and Michael Scott, who served from 2001 through 2006, and again beginning in Feb. 2009 until he committed suicide in November of that year.

Last month, a report issued by the Chicago Public Schools inspector general said the two former board presidents misspent over $800,000 on improper expenditures, including charitable donations, lavish restaurants and hotels, parties, office artwork and tickets to football games.

The latest information on the magnitude of the charitable donations was reported in Tuesday’s Chicago Tribune, in which it disclosed donations made by the two men since 2005. The five-year tally amounted to more than $525,000.

Some of the findings were:

  • A donation of $53,400 to the Chicago Urban League, for seats at two fellowship dinners, a conference registration and to sponsor youth programs at CPS. At the time, Scott sat on the board of the CUL.
  • Other organizations at which Scott sat on boards and gave money were $10,000 to the Better Boys Foundation and $14,500 to the Sinai Community Institute.
  • Scott also gave $10,000 to Mujeres Latinas En Accion, a charity for Hispanic women in Chicago where Scott’s wife, Diana Palomar Scott, was a board member.
  • Another $77,500 was given by Scott to the Holy Starlight Missionary Baptist Church during a three year period for a new church boiler and summer youth programs.
  • The school board donated at least $80,000 to sponsor an African-American Women’s Expo, for seats at fundraising dinners for the Anti-Defamation League and Rainbow/Push Coalition and for various community fairs.
  • A $10,000 contribution was made to an unspecified West Side political organization.
  • More than $140,000 was funneled to the CPS’s own charity, Children First Fund.

None of the donations required board approval since the threshold had been set for donations only exceeding $25,000. The monies were paid out of private accounts, although they contained public funds, that were under the control of the board presidents.

After beginning his second term in 2009, Scott convinced the board to change the rules on donations and gifts, so that there was virtually no oversight. After that, his unchecked spending accelerated.

Following his death, the board changed the threshold amount for which donations needed to be approved, from $25,000 to $1,000.

“Any dollars that Chicago Public Schools invests should be for services provided directly, not indirectly, to Chicago kids, which are measurable and fully transparent,” said Timothy Knowles, director of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago. “Given the scarcity of resources in the Chicago Public Schools system, (gifts) should be tied to particular deliverables and achieving certain outcomes.”

“They shouldn’t be a good will gesture to spread taxpayer dollars that may or may not do important things for kids.”

Information from: Chicago Tribune

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N.Y and N.J. Port Authority paid $95.5 million for land rights, week before project halted

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The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey paid $95.5 million to lease land for the Hudson River tunnel project only one week before work on it was halted.  The payment was for a ten-year lease on a mostly vacant 2-acre parcel that officials say was needed for the tunnel entrance for the doomed ARC Tunnel commuter rail project.

The $8.7 billion public-works project was stopped by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Sept. 10, after he determined the state could not take the risk that the project could be completed on budget, putting the state on the hook for potentially billions of dollars in cost overruns. A cost study on the project determined that with cost overruns, the price of the tunnel could potentially exceed $13 billion.

A month after the temporary halt, Christie, cancelled the project.

The lease deal, locking up rights to use the property, was signed on Sept. 3. The Port Authority told The Record newspaper it signed a preliminary contract for the site in October 2009. Port Authority officials said breaking the deal could have brought a possible lawsuit and substantial losses.

The property is owned by an investment group headed by Joseph B. Rose, a top administration official in the office of former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Rose served an eight-year term as the Chairman of the New York City Planning Commission. At the time, he was an outspoken critic of the Port Authority, claiming it was mismanaged and committed too many of its resources to New Jersey interests.

Richard Schwartz, a spokesman for the investment group, said they had planned to build a one-million square foot hotel on the property, but agreed to the Port Authority lease under threat of having the property taken by the agency through the power of eminent domain.

The parcel, known as the “Georgetown” property, was appraised two times at a value of $125 million. For the $95.5 million payment, the Port Authority received a surface easement for 10 years, which would enable it to relocate a ConEd yard that would have been closed by the construction. The payment also included rights to drill deep under the site.

The Port Authority said recently that it paid over $150 million to tie up several small parcels of land needed for the construction, and in total, spent about $600 million before the project was cancelled. It says it has been approached by developers interested in the Georgetown property, although it is doubtful that the monies could be recovered, since surface rights to the property expire in 10 years.

The Record

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North Miami mayor admits to handing out official police-like badges to “city volunteers”

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At a city council meeting Tuesday evening, North Miami Andre Pierre apologized to the audience for ordering 43 police-like badges, inscribed “Mayor’s Staff”, which cost taxpayers $4,151.

Last week, The Miami Herald first reported the story, in which Pierre claimed that he couldn’t remember how many he ordered, and how many he handed out. The trouble with the badges, is that the mayor’s staff consists of three person, all of whom he shares with city council members.

After the council meeting, Pierre said that he provided a badge to each of the staff members, and an undisclosed number to “city volunteers,” although he refused to mention any names. He also refused to answer questions why he ordered them in the first place.

Pierre bypassed the city manager when purchasing the badges, instead asking Police Chief, Stephen Johnson, to order them. The badges are similar to a law enforcement shield and feature the Florida state seal.

At the council meeting, Pierre repeated an earlier contention that the request should have not been mistaken as an order to purchase the badges. “I never gave him a command,” said Pierre.

Critics blasted Pierre for spending taxpayer monies on the badges, which might easily be mistaken for law enforcement shields. They say the badges could be used to obtain favors or intimidate citizens.

City Manager Russell Benford was not aware of the badges until contacted by the media last week. He said he’s asked Pierre to retrieve the badges.

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Oklahoma dumps anti-fraud investigators, hires former politicians instead

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The incoming Oklahoma Insurance Commissioner, John Doak, plans on laying off the majority of investigators in the state’s anti-fraud unit, a move recommended by newly-appointed Deputy Insurance Commissioner Randy Brogan, a former state senator who ran for the GOP nomination for governor and lost.

The insurance department says it plans to lay off six of the unit’s nine investigators, citing budget concerns and a refocusing of the unit on white collar crime. Brogan said that of the existing 142 open cases in the unit, 120 of them are investigations against policyholders that were initiated by insurance companies.

Some of the investigators, who wish to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, say the layoffs are intended to help offset the cost a three former politicians who are friends of Commissioner Doak, who were recently hired in the department as deputy commissioners.

Although the anti-fraud unit is funded by $750 annual assessments on insurance companies for the “investigation of suspected insurance fraud and civil or administrative action in cases involving suspected insurance fraud,” Brogan said that the companies should handle their own investigations. “Investigating policyholders is not a function of the insurance department.”

One critic of the staff cuts, Dan Ramsey, CEO of the Independent Insurance Agents of Oklahoma disagrees, saying that whether the fraud is committed by an insurance company or the insured, the net effect is that premiums end up being increased for all policyholders.

Insurance investigators cited cases where a former Tulsa area funeral director stole more than $100,000 through a scheme of submitting false death claims, and an attorney who was suspected of embezzling $200,000 by failing to pay insurance premiums. Under the slimmed-down unit, they expect those investigations to be dropped.

The three new deputy commissioners, including former state Sen. Brogan, former state Rep. Mike Thompson and former state Sen. Owen Laughlin, were all hired at a salary of $99,000.

Assistant Insurance Commissioner Rick Farmer said that the department made cuts in other areas to pay for the cost of the three new deputy commissioners, and their hiring has nothing to do with the cuts in the anti-fraud unit.  He said overall departmental cuts made so far should save the state over $500,000 this year.

Even so, questions remain regarding the hiring of the three former politicians, when so many staff cuts are being made elsewhere.

Brogan, who is overseeing the anti-fraud unit, ran a heating and air conditioning business before becoming a state senator. Some of the investigators questioned his ability to lead the department, citing the complexity of the investigations and claiming that even seasoned law enforcement investigators need a while to get up to speed on how to prosecute insurance fraud cases.

The Oklahoman

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Florida mayor purchases official badges with no decent explanation

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The same mayor who in the last year forgot who gave him a $100,000 sports sedan to drive, and who forgot to turn over relief monies to Haitian earthquake victims, now says he can’t remember why he ordered dozens of expensive official looking police-style badges.

North Miami Mayor Andre Pierre claims he purchased the badges for his staff. One of the badges was inscribed “City Clerk” while another 43 badges have the words “Mayor’s Staff” and feature the Florida state seal.

The issue critics say, is that the mayor shares a staff of only three people, with city council. Police chief Stephen Johnson said that he ordered the badges at the mayor’s request.

Invoices show that 20 badges and cases were delivered to police headquarters on Aug. 16, and another 24 on Nov. 5. According to the invoices, the total cost amounted to $4,151.

When reached for a comment by the Miami Herald, Pierre said, “My staff uses them as credentials at official events. I don’t know if the city-issued IDs are really official credentials.”

Pierre said he doesn’t remember how many he handed out, but he says that the remaining ones are in a box in his office. He also claims that he only asked for and received 20 badges.

Johnson said that it’s possible that the second set of badges is somewhere at police headquarters, and that he may possibly have ordered them by mistake. “I don’t know where they are. I don’t know why they need badges. I’m the new chief. If someone asks me to order badges, I order badges,” he said.

Pierre claims that even though he talked to Johnson about getting official badges, he didn’t actually order him to purchase them. “I had a conversation with the chief. It wasn’t an order I gave to the chief,” Pierre said. “The chief didn’t have to order them if he didn’t want to.”

Meanwhile the city manager, Russell Benford has scheduled a meeting with Johnson to determine why the badges were ordered in the first place, and where they are.

Upon learning of the badges, city council members expressed concern that so many badges that look just like police badges, were ordered for no good reason.

`There’s no reason for us to have it,” said Councilman Scott Galvin who stopped accepting his city-issued badge in 2001. “This opens up all sorts of Pandora’s boxes for abuse and misuse.”

Miami Herald

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