By Jack Rubinger
It’s hard to say exactly why whistleblowers are busting Portland Water Bureau (PWB) and Portland Parks & Recreation (PP&R) employees, but the good news is there’s a place to go when you want to report fraud.
“People are motivated for lots of reasons to report a tip: a sense of righting an injustice, dedication to public service, revenge, etc.,” said Mary Hull Caballero, the elected Auditor for the City of Portland, whose office manages Portland’s Fraud Hotline.
With 13 investigations conducted last year as a result of confidential tips reported, City officials found evidence of procurement and ethics violations in an investigation prompted by a tip alleging purchasing improprieties by PWB.
It was found that staff broke up purchases totaling $180,000 18 times to avoid a competitive procurement process and the manager overseeing the purchases was married to the salesperson.
Auditors referred findings and recommendations to PWB management for further action who determined that employee discipline was not warranted, but agreed to implement other Auditor’s Office recommendations.
In a case concerning PP&R, investigators found waste and mismanagement while investigating the working retirement of the former director of Portland’s municipal golf courses. The former director worked nearly double the hours permitted by a written agreement and the working retirement was not properly managed.
Portland’s Fraud Hotline offers a way for the public and City employees to confidentially report suspected fraud, waste and abuse of position by or against the City. The Hotline helps identify and prevent losses of City funds and acts as a deterrent to fraud, waste and abuse of position.
How does the process work? The first step is to determine if the tip involves the City of Portland or another jurisdiction. If it’s the latter, the tipster is forwarded to the appropriate agency. Beyond the initial contact, timeliness can depend on the complexity of the tip.
If it is a Portland case, the office gathers preliminary evidence to determine if it’s likely to result in findings of fraud, waste, inefficiency or abuse of position.
The most time-consuming parts of the investigation are scheduling interviews, which sometimes must be coordinated with the Bureau of Human Resources, and waiting for management to respond to findings. The office is continuing to work on ways to make investigations more timely.
Because of their knowledge of the City’s policies, City employees are more likely to provide tips that result in an investigation than regular folks. Sometimes people report anonymously and other times they identify themselves.
It’s hard to know exactly where reports originate and the Auditor’s Office is more interested in information provided than where it came from. Collecting the initial information provides the office with a starting point. Evidence is then examined to determine if the tip is true, whether it violates City rules or if it may be punishable by law.
“The Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office always encourages community members to report suspected fraud, waste or misuse of public resources, and abuse of position,” said Brent Weisberg, Communications Director, Multnomah County DA’s Office.
The Auditor can only investigate tips for the City of Portland and gets all kinds of calls because people are looking for help and don’t know where else to turn.
An online system allows the office to communicate with tipsters immediately to let them know their information was received. The system allows the auditor’s office to communicate with confidential tipsters, but they can only do so if they check back in the system after filing the tip.
The Auditor had a hotline for years but a year ago it was relaunched as the Fraud Hotline. Previously called the Open City Tipline, the name did not generate much activity because it was too broad.
By narrowing the scope to fraud, waste, inefficiency and abuse of position, the office prompted the types of tips they were looking for and would investigate. It helped focus investigative resources on the most serious risks. In general, the majority of fraud cases that are resolved start with an insider’s tip.
Tips about transportation were most frequent in the early years, followed closely by police and matters related to the City’s internal operations services, such as procurement and the use of City credit cards.
The Fraud Hotline is managed by the Audit Services division in the Auditor’s Office, but employees from other divisions help investigate tips.
Hotline tips can be submitted online at PortlandFraudHotline.com or by calling 866.342.4148.