Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Ethics board hits ex-DNR buyer with $7.5K fine

by July 22nd, 2013

A former vehicle parts buyer for the Washington Department of Natural Resources used his position to exchange special favors with suppliers and has agreed to pay a fine to a state oversight board of $7,500 for violating state ethics laws, according to an agreement he signed that was approved July 12. Longtime DNR employee Randy Sweet worked as a parts specialist for the state agency since 1991, in later years at the Tumwater compound just south of the Olympia Airport where he shared responsibilities for buying, billing and taking delivery of materials and parts used to keep running DNR’s boats, heavy equipment, cars and trucks. But during 2007 and 2008 he skirted purchasing guidelines meant to save taxpayer monies, to instead fatten the wallets of or to favor certain suppliers and was rewarded in return with cut rate deals on personal merchandise or other favors. This according to the findings of fact in the Washington Executive Ethics Board agreement, or “stipulation” document he signed to settle the case and which the board approved just 10 days ago.

A 2010 state audit which led to the ethics board probe noted two others at the facility were fired along with Sweet, one resigned, and eight more were reprimanded. The agency then said it put new safeguards in place. There were no criminal prosecutions. The ethics board is still investigating the role of two men above Sweet who may also face civil sanctions. The problems were first identified in a 2001 state audit.

“Screaming Deal” For Buyer From Contractor, After Overcharges OKd
According to the new ethics board settlement document which provides names not in the 2010 state audit, Sweet was friends with Marty Stepan, the owner of a firm named Industrial Specialties. The two took extended hunting vacations, also riding “quads” or all-terrain vehicles together and sometimes meeting for after-work drinks. Though it had no state contract, Stepan’s company made sales of supplies to DNR authorized by Sweet in state fiscal years 2007 and 2008 that included overcharges of $50,134 compared to costs from an approved contract vendor. Some of the purchases were for more than the $3,300 maximum for no-contract buys, and were also inflated versus approved vendor costs by 30 to 300 percent, the ethics board found. “Some of the items purchased….were marked up beyond all reason,” the report states.

As he was steering state business and inflated payments to the company in 2007 and 2008, Sweet had also been a personal customer of Industrial Specialties since at least 2004, buying four ATVs including two Arctic Cat Quads including two at year’s end 2008 that he told co-workers he got a “screaming deal” on at $1,800 apiece. The standard public price was a bit above $3,000 each, the ethics board report noted.

Not So “Affordable” Auto Glass, But No Matter
Another set of ethically dubious actions, according to the settlement, involved Sweet and another firm named Affordable Autoglass. It was owned by a friend of his named Mike Darrah. Over 22 months in dozens of windshield replacement purchases for DNR vehicles, which evidence indicated were directed by Sweet, the agency was overcharged $8,400 by Affordable Autoglass, compared to what the same work would have cost if performed by the approved state vendor, Safelite. Affordable had no state contract. One of several DNR workers interviewed for the ethics board’s investigation of Sweet said competing vendors including Safelite and one other were “chased out” of doing windshield replacement work at the DNR compound. The 2008 accumulated bill to the DNR Tumwater Compound from Affordable Autoglass for windshield replacements was $15,357.49. That exceeded a state limit of $10,000 for which a contract would have been required from the state’s procurement office.

The settlement also details an instance where Sweet approved an invoice to be paid to Affordable Autoglass for windshield replacement work on a DNR vehicle, but the work was later shown not to have actually occurred.

Favored supplier fixed windshields for at least six workers
Affordable replaced all the auto glass in a private vehicle Sweet was fixing up, and did windshield replacement at the DNR site on another vehicle owned by a friend of Sweet’s, according to the ethics board settlement. That last was under warranty Sweet said when questioned later, but the action violated a state directive to keep private work out of state facilities. Another ethics board probe of Sweet’s then-top overseer Phil Moller says at least DNR workers had the windshields of their personal vehicles repaired or replaced by Affordable at the Tumwater compound.

Also cited by the ethics board in the settlement, Sweet steered $4,334.30 worth of business to another supplier without a state contract, named BG Wagonmaster. The sales director and account manager of the company was Sweet’s wife’s cousin, and Sweet disclosed this to co-workers.

Four Violations of ‘Ethics in Public Service Act’; settlement
In the settlement Sweet agreed to pay the ethics board $7,500 “for the violation of” four provisions of Washington’s Ethics in Public Service Act: 42.52.020, 42.52.030, 42.52.070 and 42.52.160. He also agreed to cooperate with the ethics board’s continuing and related investigation of two other DNR workers, his former supervisor Jason Price, and DNR’s former head of fleet management for equipment services Phil Moller. Sweet was terminated by DNR for the questioned acts. Public employee salary records show him still working for DNR as of early 2009 but not for the state from at least January 2010 forward. In early 2009 he was earning $3,337 per month, or $40,524.

DNR heads-up to auditor set things in motion
A Washington State Auditor’s office fraud report issued in April 2010 said DNR initially reported concerns to the auditor in late September, 2008 and said it would investigate and hire an independent contractor to probe the case as well. In May 2009, the auditor’s office began its own review of those probes, which largely dovetail with the Ethics Board findings of fact but could not include the final disciplinary actions set by the board in its July 12, 2013 agreement with Sweet. The auditor referred the case to the ethics board August 31, 2010.

Sweet Lost Appeal For Reinstatement
This was several days after a state arbitrator found that Sweet’s discharge was warranted but that Wise, while negligent, deserved only a 120-day suspension. Then the ethics board in March 2012 in a preliminary investigation found reasonable cause to conclude Wise had violated the Ethics in Public Service Act for allowing Sweet’s misconduct; had used the DNR Tumwater Compound’s auto shop after-hours to work on his own vehicle; and had gamed DNR’s purchasing system to charge the agency for personal buys of auto parts. The probe continues with an administrative law review to be scheduled “when a judge becomes available,” said Executive Ethics Board Director Melanie DeLeon.

Problems First Surfaced in 2001 State Audit
Also in March 2012 the ethics board found reasonable cause that Moller as supervisor of the Tumwater compound had broken state ethics law, for allowing purchasing-related improprieties to occur. The preliminary determination noted ethical problems with DNR vehicle parts purchasing oversight dated back to at least 2001, the year Moller assumed his position. A 2001 state auditor’s whistleblower report first identified problems, including goods being bought from Industrial Supplies, but never received. Moller’s hearing is scheduled for September of this year, said DeLeon.

Although the 2001 state audit findings apparently went unheeded for seven more years, DNR said in the April 2010 state audit it adopted corrective measures suggested by the auditor including greater segregation of duties and beefed-up internal accountability measures in ordering, receiving and documentation. The audit also reported the department terminated a purchase specialist (Sweet, though not so named in the audit) plus a shop manager (Wise, later ordered reinstated with a suspension) and fleet supervisor (Moller), and that another involved employee resigned. Four written and four verbal employee reprimands were also issued, according to the 2010 audit.

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A 2010 Olympian article on the 2010 auditor’s report also noted that DNR said the auditor’s office checked with the Washington State Patrol on the possibility of criminal prosecutions in the case but the patrol concluded evidence wasn’t sufficient. The Washington Attorney General can prosecute civil, not criminal suits, for violations of the Ethics in Public Service Act and the ethics board said its settlement with Sweet resolved that “expeditiously” instead.

DNR’s mission is to steward the state public lands it owns to protect the ecology and public safety while also generating education funding from timber sales. A call to Sweet’s residence seeking comment for this story was not returned. Also not yet resulting in a response was a request for comment on the case made to Matthew Randazzo, a special assistant to Washington State Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark, who became state lands commissioner in early 2009, after ousting in November 2008 two-term incumbent Doug Sutherland. Sutherland held the post from 2000 to 2008, and beforehand served as Pierce County Executive and Mayor of Tacoma.

Contacted Sunday via email in Arizona, where he has relocated, Sutherland said he didn’t know Sweet, or at least didn’t recall him. He added that in all types of organizations, “honest employees are impacted when sneaky, fraudulent” actions like those to which Sweet admitted in the civil settlement are uncovered.

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