California Department of Transportation employees falsified concrete testing data, were paid for work they did not perform, and stole steel beams and other materials from state project sites, state auditors conclude in a scathing new report.
The 38-page report by State Auditor Elaine M. Howle, CPA, details what it calls “improper, inexcusable neglect of duty; overpayment for overtime; testing data falsification; and misappropriation of state property” by two Caltrans technicians (identified only as A and B) and their supervisor, who is also unidentified.
The report concludes that concrete pile testing data were falsified 11 times on “at least three transportation projects” and that the technicians were paid nearly $14,000 for work they did not do.
State auditors cite "inexcusable neglect of duty" by Caltrans employees and criticize the agency's handling of the matter.
The report also criticizes Caltrans for its handling of the issue, saying the agency dragged its feet on auditors’ requests and failed to order immediate re-testing when data were falsified.
“Caltrans employees engaged in 11 incidents of data falsification—10 of the incidents involved one of the technicians, while the remaining incident involved an engineer who reviewed testing data collected by that technician,” said the audit, released Thursday (March 28).
“Caltrans could not identify the engineer who falsified the data,” added the report.
The review focused on Caltrans’ Foundation Testing Branch, which performs foundation testing on freeway overpasses, bridges and other transportation structures. About 80 percent of that work involves so-called gamma gamma logging, in which a probe is used to detect anomalies or inconsistencies in the density of the concrete used to form a pile that will support a structure.
Infrequently, auditors said, the department will conduct pile load testing when a project engineer wants confirmation that the design of the piles used in a project will have the load capacity necessary when put in place at the site. Pile load testing involves placing hydraulic jacks on top of the pile and a large steel beam over the jack. Because the test is physically demanding, Caltrans technicians receive a $1.25-per-hour pay differential for it.
Both tests require extensive documentation, the state auditor says.
Tip-off and Investigation
Auditors said they were tipped in early 2009 that some Caltrans technicians might be receiving overtime and differential payments for work not performed. They then asked Caltrans to review all 2008 timesheets for those technicians.
Confronted by a Caltrans engineer for his thin test results regarding the La Sierra Avenue Bridge, one technician cut and pasted results from a different inspection.
Separately, the auditors worked with two federal agencies (the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration) to review allegations of falsified testing data and misappropriation of state property.
Despite repeated requests, the auditors say, Caltrans did not turn in its review until September 2009. When the review arrived, auditors deemed it “inadequate, as Caltrans did not explain how the technicians could have worked so much overtime on days when they were not assigned to perform testing in the field,” the audit said.
Hours Claims Challenged
Auditors then asked Caltrans for more explanation and documentation. In February 2010, Caltrans told the auditors that the technicians’ overtime related to field testing.
“However, when we compared the technicians’ travel claims to their overtime and pile load testing hours, we found that most of the overtime and pile load testing hours claimed were not associated with field testing,” the auditors wrote.
“Instead, the technicians claimed overtime and pile load testing hours regularly, without regard to their assignments.”
From March 2010 through October 2011, the auditors say, they regularly pressed Caltrans for better accounting. When Caltrans filed its report in October 2011, auditors found it incomplete.
In the end, the auditors detailed a variety of fraud and wrongdoing. Their conclusions follow.
Neglect of Duty
The technicians’ supervisor neglected his duty to supervise the technicians, thus allowing them to be paid for work not performed, the auditors said.
The supervisor approved 267 hours of overtime for the technicians, “even though there was no evidence to demonstrate that they actually worked the overtime.” He also approved 1,373 hours of pile load testing (including differential pay), “even though there was no evidence to verify that they performed this work during those hours.”
“In fact,” the report adds, “in some instances, documents were available to indicate that they were performing another kind of work entirely.”
The sheer number of hours claimed for pile load testing, which the department does only rarely, should have raised a red flag with the supervisor, auditors said.
For example, one technician reported pile load testing during four weeks in January, when other records indicate no evidence of that kind of testing for any of the weeks. The other technician also “regularly claimed pile load testing hours that exceeded the amount of this testing that generally is performed,” they said.
Falsification of Test Results
In addition to the payroll fraud, the auditors found that test results were falsified. In one case, the auditors discovered, Technician A was to have performed gamma gamma logging testing in September 2008 on piles for a bridge in Riverside, CA.
CA State Auditor
Auditors found that two technicians submitted thousands of dollars in overtime for pile load testing (right), in some months when none of the test was done. Most of the agency's testing involves less extensive (and lower paid) gamma gamma logging testing (left).
When the technician forwarded the testing data file to a Caltrans engineer for evaluation, the engineer told the technician that the test results “appeared incomplete, because the size of the data file for the testing did not seem consistent with the amount of testing that needed to be performed.”
The engineer asked the technician to redo the test and, two days later, received a much larger data file in return. That again raised concern, because the engineer felt the technician had not had time to produce that much testing data. Upon further checking, the engineer found that the data had been cut and pasted from a different test. He alerted Caltrans, which had the pile retested. The technician eventually admitted falsifying the data, but said he had falsified nothing else.
In June 2009, however, the engineer identified two other incidents, each involving separate construction projects, in which it appeared that Technician A had falsified testing data for a pile being used to support a highway structure. In those cases, the auditors said, Caltrans “did not at that time take any action to determine whether the structures affected were indeed sound.”
In March 2010, DOT’s Inspector General reported to Caltrans and to FHWA another complaint of falsified test results by the same technician on a federally funded highway project in California. Although that case eventually turned out to be the same as one reported earlier, auditors said FHWA “encountered difficulty obtaining from Caltrans all of the documentation it wanted to examine….”
The auditors also criticized Caltrans’ and FHWA’s early conclusion that only three projects were affected by wrongdoing.
When the agencies reached that conclusion, they had not reviewed all of the tests conducted by Technician A, auditors said. Second, they said, the agencies looked only at whether reports had been cut and pasted, and not at other types of falsification. Third, FHWA was able to review only data provided by Caltrans, and that agency said it had lost “an undetermined amount of data caused by a server crash in 2007.”
Finally, auditors said, the technician was giving access to electronic job files for eight months after he was removed from testing duties—“ample opportunity to further manipulate or delete those data files,” the audit said.
When some of the fraud became public in November 2011, the Legislature convened hearings and pressured Caltrans for further investigation. A special team then reviewed a total of 224,104 test files completed from March 1994 to May 2012. That review flagged 1,102 test files for further evaluation. That new round of evaluation turned up “additional instances of data falsification,” the audit said.
In January 2013, the review team identified eight additional incidents of data falsification, in addition to the three found earlier.
Theft of State Property
In February 2010, auditors said, Caltrans learned that the supervisor had directed state employees to transport 12 50-foot-long steel beams, galvanized metal sheeting, drill rods, pipes, buckets and other materials to his own property 180 miles away and use them to build a large metal gate there.
Caltrans passed along the information to DOT’s inspectors, who investigated and confronted the supervisor. The supervisor said he had been directed to store the materials off site. Later, he said that Caltrans employees were allowed to take leftover materials for personal use—an assertion denied by Caltrans officials.
As of January 2013, the materials have not been returned to Caltrans and the agency has not been reimbursed, auditors said.
Actions by Caltrans
Auditors found that Technician A had been the subject of disciplinary actions dating to 1990. He was fired in November 2011 but was later allowed to retire. He was ordered not to accept any future employment with the state, but auditors found that agreement unenforceable.
Technician B was suspended for 10 days, and Caltrans withdrew all charges related to the payroll fraud. Both dispositions followed appeals by the workers to the State Personnel Board.
The supervisor was fired in November 2011, but like both technicians, has appealed his dismissal to the State Personnel Board.
Caltrans told the auditors “that although it disagrees with our characterization of what we asked Caltrans to do to assist us with the investigation and our characterization of Caltrans’ responsiveness to our requests, it agrees with our findings.”
“In its response to auditors,” the audit said, “Caltrans agreed with the findings but disagreed with how auditors characterized the agency’s actions.”
Caltrans also detailed management system changes it plans to implement and said it would assemble a team of foundation testing experts to review the recommendations. As of August 2012, it added, Caltrans will review certain test results if certain values in the results suggest the data was not properly collected or reported.