Darrell Ehrlick

(Daily Montanan) A yearly report by the Montana Legislative Audit Division on waste, fraud and abuse within the state government saw an increased number of calls to the hotline and 15 instances of theft or suspect theft within Fiscal Year 2022, including one case in which employees of Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks threw a private party inside the Lewis and Clark Caverns state park.

Citizens and state government employees are encouraged to report instances of fraud, waste or abuse through a toll-free hotline, online portal, email, text or even via letter.

The audit noted that more than half of the fraud schemes detected in the United States come from within the organization by employees who report it. Furthermore, organizations that have hotlines or other means for reporting and detecting fraud have lower rates of fraud.

Montana auditors calculated they spent more than 529 hours investigating nearly 100 complaints. The 98 reports received by the hotline mark a 75 percent increase from 56 reports in 2021.

The number of hotline submissions increased, but the number of times an agency reported theft or suspected theft to the auditors, as required by state law, decreased from 23 to 15 in that same time period.

Montana State University reported more than half of the self-reporting calls, which included theft of computers, signs, a personal charge on a state-issued credit card and the theft of “a bronze bobcat statue.”

Auditors also noted that the rise in calls to the hotline was due to a number of people calling to report cases in which the Legislative Auditor “had no jurisdiction.”

“For example, public assistance recipient fraud allegations were redirected to the Department of Public Health and Human Services; workers’ compensation fraud reports were redirected to Montana State Fund,” the report said.

Auditors also said that while the number of complaints of human-resource related issues has dropped, they still constitute the largest number of submissions, including complains of paying exorbitant speaker fees, misuse of office space and misuse of teleworking arrangements.

Underground wedding

A tip also caused investigators to discover that a private wedding was held at Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park during the offseason when the park was closed to the public.

Also, the park is not a public wedding venue.

“The wedding couple were current FWP employees who previously worked in the Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park.”

The auditors noted that there was limited communication between the division and those coordinating the wedding, and because of that, there were no policies and procedures to protect the park.

“This included the lack of permits with an established fee structure. As a result, parks staff adjusted and waived park fees for the wedding couple and their guests. We determined this to be a waste of resources,” the audit said.

The couple was allowed “unsupervised access to the caverns and operated the lighting system without supervision.”

Though the couple had rudimentary knowledge of the system, the report said, “Potential damage to the lighting system included relay switches that had to be reset and use of expensive back-up batteries that were left on for an extended period after the wedding. We determined this to be abuse of the state park.”

Auditors recommended FWP come up with permits and policies for weddings, but ultimately the department told auditors that weddings will not be allowed there regardless.

“The park employee responsible for oversight and supervision has since resigned to pursue other opportunities,” the report said.

Montana FWP opted not to comment on this particular case when contacted by the Daily Montanan.

1,700 (unaccounted) miles

Auditors found that an employee of the Montana Department of Justice was using a state-owned vehicle for personal use. The auditors discovered that the employee had been given temporary permission to use a state vehicle, but that lasted longer than the agreement.

“In examining fuel card use data, we could not account for approximately 1,700 miles of vehicle use,” auditors determined.

And the vehicle could not be checked because the state had sold it or “surplused” it “due to high mileage.”

“The department acknowledged the lack of proper documentation and the use of the state vehicle,” the audit report said. “The department indicated they reprimanded the employee, directed them to reimburse the state for the car’s use and received the reimbursement.”

The Montana Department of Justice did not respond to Daily Montanan requests for an interview about this incident.