Four managers with the Montgomery County Department of Permitting Services allowed their inspectors to be paid COVID hazardous pay even though they were not out in the field or meeting with the public, according to County Inspector General Megan Limarzi.
As a result, slightly more than a total of $100,000 in this differential pay was received by almost 75 employees, said Director of DPS Mitra Pedoeem, resulting in those employees being overpaid about $1,420 per person over a five month period. Pedoeem was not head of DPS when much of this took place.
During a Nov. 10 council meeting, members of county council asked for an outside audit of DPS and called on the county executive’s office to determine if other county agencies were guilty of the same charge.
“I believe there needs to be an independent investigation. I do not believe this should be internal,” said Council President Sidney Katz.
Councilmember Andrew Friedson called on County Administrative Officer Richard Madaleno to “fix this mess right now – no excuses and no delays.” He called it “not negotiable” that the county is reimbursed for all the overpayments and said the DPS “took advantage of the pandemic.”
Limarzi said the request for the additional $10 an hour payments that were designed for front line workers like police, fire fighters and medical workers, was done knowingly. “It is our position that it was a deliberate decision,” adding that the managers “made a decision as a group.”
According to the inspector general’s report, which was released Oct. 29, DPS data was incomplete and inaccurate and that at times, the department sent differing data. The report noted that approximately half of the inspectors consistently claimed 80 hours of differential pay, “pay they were not entitled to receive.”
However, Fariba Kassiri, deputy chief administrative officer, said the overpayments were not deliberate. “It was basically, I hate to say it, a bunch of managers not paying attention,” she said, “It was an egregious mistake. It was not a deliberate one.”
She said employees were told that if they put in for the COVID-19 pay, “it was not going to be nickeled and dimed. I am not going to hide this.”
Madaleno agreed, noting, “We have not been able to find evidence of malicious intent.”
Councilman Craig Rice called it “egregious” that employees were told not to worry about having their pay requests scrutinized. “It was wrong to utilize taxpayers’ dollars and just think that it doesn’t matter,” Rice said. “Tell that to the people who are standing in food lines,” who are being evicted or having their utilities shut off.
According to the Inspector General’s report, once DPS became aware that an investigation was underway, it adjusted its policy, resulting in a 27% decrease – 1,456 hours – in hazardous pay.
“Additionally, the number of DPS staff charging 80 hours of front facing time per pay period declined 90%, from 51 employees to 5 employees,” according to the report.
After the meeting, County Executive Marc Elrich wrote in a news release that he did not believe the requests for differential pay amounted to fraud.
He added, “First, please know that we take the finding by the OIG very seriously and we are taking steps to rectify this situation in order to ensure that this does not happen again. I want to be clear – as soon as the current DPS director learned of this practice, she stopped it.”
He also instructed his staff to look into the matter and to see if it also took place in other departments.