Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Cover up at the BMV?

If anyone out there thought that electing Eric "Bagman" Holcomb would clean up the BMV. Tony Cook's column "BMV fires supervisor and her son, won't give details"  shows just how irrational hope in Holcomb is. 

Tony Cook writes:

A supervisor at the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles and her son — also a BMV employee — have been fired after an internal fraud investigation. 

But the BMV is releasing few details about the firings, rekindling concerns about openness at an agency that has overcharged customers,  grappled with an ethics scandal and faced questions about politically motivated hirings.

Stacy Cox, the accounting supervisor at BMV's headquarters in Indianapolis, was terminated on March 21 for providing false information during an investigation by the agency's Fraud and Security Enforcement division. 

Apparently if the BMV is to be believed lying during an investigation runs in the family. Since Cook goes onto say:

Her son, Richard Cody Pringle, who also worked at the central office as a driver's license printer, was terminated two weeks later for the same reason.

The fraud investigation was prompted by the employees' personal vehicle transactions, including allegations of the employees submitting false monetary amounts paid for those vehicles, according to Ashley Hungate, a spokeswoman for the state personnel department.

In phone interviews, Cox and Pringle defended their actions as oversights rather than deliberate misconduct. 

IndyStar requested a copy of the fraud investigation reports, but the BMV refused to provide them. citing exemptions to the state's public records law regarding personnel matters. 

Such reports, however, are typically released when they involve non-employees.

Government watchdogs say the agency's decision to withhold reports involving BMV employees is concerning, especially since employees fired after fraud investigations have landed sensitive jobs with BMV contractors in the past.

Sarah Bonick, a spokeswoman for the BMV, said the agency must strike a balance between employee privacy and transparency. 

Cox told IndyStar the investigation began when she bought a vehicle from an Eastside junkyard, Barlow's Used Auto Parts, where her brother worked.

The vehicle turned out to be stolen. She said she was unaware that the vehicle was stolen when she bought it.

BMV investigators later found she had titled a box truck five years earlier in her name and listed the purchase price as $0, even though her then-boyfriend had paid for it, she said. 

The BMV takes such indiscretions seriously because they can muddy the vehicle's ownership history and allow the new owner to avoid title costs, which include a 7 percent sales tax based on the purchase price listed on the title.

Pringle said BMV investigators questioned him about several vehicles he bought or sold, including a pickup truck he purchased from the owner of Barlow's, where his uncle worked.

"They accused me of lying about how much I paid for it," Pringle said. "I can't remember the amounts."

He then sold that vehicle for $500 and "some handguns," he said, but only listed the $500 cash on the title work. He later told BMV investigators that there was only one handgun involved in the exchange, though in reality there were "three or four," he said.

"It was none of their business how many guns I traded for," he said. 

In another case, he purchased a vehicle for $2,000 from a friend, but paid only $100 in cash and agreed to work off the remaining $1,900 at his friend's shop, he said. So he listed $100 on the title work.

While the terminations may be justified, advocates of open government said the BMV should be more transparent about such situations. 

"As a citizen, I am always concerned when a government agency fails to be transparent regarding offenses or violations that occur at the hands of its employees," said Zachary Baiel, president of the Indiana Coalition for Open Government. "Without access to this information, the public cannot be assured the necessary accountability has been met."

Julia Vaughn, public policy director for Common Cause Indiana, shared her concerns.

"While keeping these records under wraps serves their immediate interest of avoiding public scrutiny about what happened here, in the long-term it’s just another reason for the public not to have faith in this agency," she said. "All I can think is there is information embarrassing to someone at a higher level who is still at the BMV."

IndyStar reported in 2015 that at least three fired BMV employees were later hired by a BMV contractor, where they continued to have access to sensitive information stored on BMV terminals. 

Two of the employees had been fired after a fraud investigation; the other was terminated for poor performance that supervisors said opened up the agency to potential fraud. 

As in this latest case, the BMV declined to release any of the FSE investigation reports related to those employees.

Bonick said the BMV now has safeguards to ensure that fired employees don't end up working in similar positions for outside contractors.

"All potential employees who will have access to BMV terminals or our transaction system while working for a contractor are vetted through the State Personnel Department and also the BMV’s Fraud and Security Enforcement Department," she said in an email. "Any former State of Indiana employee, not just those who previously worked for the BMV, who have been flagged as Not Eligible For Rehire are not approved."

The firings come after several turbulent years for the agency. Since 2013, the BMV has admitted to overcharging Hoosier motorists about $90 million in taxes and fees. Those overcharges have since been refunded, but one of two class-action lawsuits over the fees remains unresolved. 

Any IndyStar investigation in 2015 found that top BMV officials knew for years they were likely gouging Hoosier motorists with excessive fees, but chose to ignore or cover up the overcharges rather than refund the extra money and adjust to significant budget losses.

The financial mismanagement raised serious questions about the qualifications of several top BMV officials and the role that political connections played in their hiring.

IndyStar also found that Shawn Walters, the agency's former chief of staff, encouraged the use of a new fee, then went to work for a private vendor that benefited from it.

The series of controversies led then-Gov. Mike Pence to shake up BMV leadership and cancel the state's contract with the controversial outside vendor. The state ethics commission later fined Walters $500 for violating state ethics rules — an amount that government accountability experts criticized as too low. 

The BMV has since worked with lawmakers to streamline the state's complicated system of fees. 

Well we can all see why Holcomb didn't have a problem vetoing the controversial public records search fee bill. It is because he knows his lapdogs throughout state government will refuse to release records by claiming they relate to "personnel matters". As for BMV spokeswoman Sarah Bonick's stating they have to balance employee privacy with transparency. We ask: "Ms. Bonick how is that applicable in this case?" Cox and Pringle are no longer employed by the BMV. So how can the BMV say that by keeping their fraud investigation reports secret you are protecting employee privacy? Especially since reports are usually released when non-employees are involved? Even conceding that somehow the agency is interested in protecting Cox and Pringle's privacy. Cox and Pringle have given interviews to the Indianapolis Star. So obviously they are not concerned about their own privacy. So there is no reason for the BMV not to release the information. 

Last June we blogged about several BMV scandals and gave links to Gary Welsh, Paul Ogden and Charlie White's chronicling of all the BMV stupidity. IR must confess that Julia Vaughn's saying "All I can think is there is information embarrassing to someone at a higher level who is still at the BMV." Has all of us thinking this is more likely than not the reason for the BMV's being so reluctant to release the information in this case. But if so who at the BMV stands to be embarrassed by this and why? For the record IR is not saying that this is anything other than a simple fraud investigation. That we don't know. But given the BMV's troubled history. Our natural inclination is to assume a cover up. Unless we are given reason to believe otherwise. If you have any information, rumors or tips. Please leave a comment at the end of this post. Or on the web version of this blog fill out the contact form and submit it. 

From all of us here at IR we wish you all a good rest of the week. And remember stay positive.

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