DNR overpaid for equipment at Tumwater shop, auditor says

An audit has found that the state Department of Natural Resources overpaid for automotive equipment by at least $57,000 over 21/2 years at its Tumwater maintenance shop.

The agency fired three employees – including one who made questionable purchases from a personal friend and a relative – then called in State Auditor Brian Sonntag’s office to review its internal investigation.

The internal probe found that employees at the shop just south of Olympia Airport disregarded state law and department policy, according to the auditor’s report released Monday. In some cases, large purchases such as engines were made without getting required estimates from competitors.

In other cases, it was small price tags that added up.

More than 22,000 cleaning pads, for oil spills and the like, were bought in one year at above-market rates, the Department of Natural Resources found.

“They ordered far more than we can use, at least twice as many as we really used in the shop,” said Jim Morgan, the department’s financial manager, “and we weren’t able to account for them.”

The purchaser and the shop’s supervisor lost their jobs in early 2009. So did the fleet manager, who was supposed to make sure policies were followed at the Tumwater shop and eight smaller shops statewide that maintain and repair the agency’s cars, wildfire-fighting trucks and other vehicles, with a supplies budget of nearly $1.7 million.

Eight more employees were reprimanded. One worker retired before the review was finished.

The shop bought thousands of items from a vendor without a state contract, at prices that the department found in some instances were 50 percent to 300 percent higher than those for similar supplies from other sellers.

The purchaser considered the vendor a friend, according to the audit, and had borrowed an off-road vehicle from the vendor.

The vendor sold more than $44,000 in supplies over six months in 2008, according to the Auditor’s Office, more than anyone else selling to the automotive shops.

The audit did not name the vendor or the former employees, who Morgan said are appealing their firings. Morgan said the vendor is Industrial Specialties of Lewis County. No one answered the phone Tuesday evening at the company’s listed number.

In a separate purchase, according to the report: “The Department also stated the purchasing specialist had paid higher than market value when he purchased oil and oil-related products from a relative.”

Sonntag’s office recommended more documentation and review for future purchasing and asked the department to consider filing an ethics complaint over the purchaser’s “potential conflict of interest.”

Morgan said the department has made changes, including building a fence around its parts inventory, and is considering whether it has enough evidence to file a complaint. He said the Auditor’s Office discussed the possibility of criminal charges with the Washington State Patrol but concluded that it lacked evidence.

The employees were fired weeks after newly elected Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark took over the agency and inherited the investigation.

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826