Whistleblower to State Auditor: UW workers falsified overtime

SEATTLE -- It's been nearly a year since state auditors began asking questions about possible padded overtime and made-up hours by workers at the University of Washington's fire alarm system maintenance division.

Those paychecks pushed some salaries in the Signal Systems department over $100,000, which is higher than some tenured professors at the Pac-12 school. One worker made more than $40,000 in overtime in back-to-back years.

The allegations first surfaced because a worker inside the department had enough of what he called "a lack of accountability."

"These people are manipulating the system," said fire technician Don Stephens.

Signal Systems works to repair and maintain fire alarms and systems across the 500 buildings on campus. With recent budget cuts and more construction, overtime can be common.

"Sometimes there is no other option. You have to do it," Stephens said.

The Problem Solvers filed a Freedom of Information Act Request to obtain dozens of the department's pay records for the last three fiscal years to see if Stephens allegations of high overtime panned out.

Two workers racked up more than $200,000 combined in just overtime during that time period.

UW records show that Stanley Ross made $65,655 in 2010 base pay, but he made an additional $33,978 in overtime. In that same year, Don Hulse made $65,668 in base pay, but took home $43,137 in overtime for a total of $108,793. In 2011, it was $41,209 in overtime.

For perspective, estimates put the 2010 overtime numbers at upwards of 800 hours. Put another way, that's 100 days of overtime. No one else in the department even came close to that much overtime.

Ross accounted for 29 percent of the total overtime for the entire department in 2010. Hulse was given 36 percent. The other nine hourly employees didn't make that much combined.

Stephens said the dollar figures are not the only problem. He told the State Auditor's Office the men didn't work all of those hours. Instead, he said he saw some of them watch movies and surf the web on state time. Stephens also pored through the records himself and discovered the math didn't add up.

"Made up hours. Hours booked to jobs that that person wasn't on," he said.

Stephens also told auditors one of the two men allegedly took overtime just to help a co-worker figure out a time sheet. He said internal records show that should not have happened.

"Three hours for maybe two minutes worth of explanation," he said.

After getting little traction when raising the issue, Stephens went to the state to blow the whistle. He could get few answers from his manager, Rick Benefiel. Benefiel told the Problem Solvers over email that everything was fine and there was nothing to discuss. It became a different story in person, when he said "budget crunches" and hiring freezes can contribute to perceived excessive overtime.

He said they are trying to fix it.

"It is excessive right now. It's not overly excessive. But it is necessary. Otherwise we can't occupy our buildings," Benefiel said.

Benefiel approves the overtime requests and admits he knew about the escalating numbers, but claims he actually saved taxpayers money. He said it was similar to staffing systems in place at companies like Boeing.

"It's more cost effective to work overtime than it is to hire more staff," he said.

Those calculations may not prove correct. For about the same amount of money spent on overtime in 2010, Benefiel could possibly have hired one full time and one part time worker.

He also doubts Stephens' allegations of overtime abuses and says the men's work was by the book. He also does not worry about the state audit.

"We haven't got the final report yet, but we've been assured we have done nothing wrong and that no one's doing anything wrong," Benefiel said.

It is unclear why Benefiel is so confident. The Problem Solvers have contacted the state auditor's office repeatedly and have been told the audit isn't complete -- even though the investigation has lasted nearly a year.

A thin paper trail may be to blame for the delay.

Before February of this year, the department used paper slips instead of a new computerized tracking system. The old system required little explanation for overtime. It was the honor system.

Benefiel said he believes his men.

"I'm not there all the time. We have to have some trust in these folks when they do certain work," he said.

The Problem Solvers tried speaking with the two men who were given the most overtime. Ross was not in the office and Hulse had no comment.

University of Washington administrators say they cannot comment until the State Auditor's Office releases the report. The internal audit department only assisted state auditors in the investigation. The state says the report should be public in another two weeks.

Stephens knows he may have trouble in the office after coming forward to the state and to share his story with us. He said he is willing to fight for taxpayers and his fellow workers.

"We want to do our job the best that we possibility can and keep costs down," he said.

All UW salaries are available online.