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Probe of welfare theft ongoing

January 25, 2013

As the Bishop Police Department continues investigating allegations that a county employee embezzled taxpayer money from the local Health and Human Services welfare office, county officials refuse to comment on the employee’s current employment status with the county.
County Counsel Randy Keller said Friday that he will not discuss if any action has been taken at the county level, citing Section 3.12 of the county personnel rules and regulations, which he says prohibits him from disclosing personnel information.
He did, however, say the employee or employees under investigation no longer have access to taxpayer money.
“The county has ensured that there isn’t anybody that has access to the (Health and Human Services Public Assistance Program) that isn’t under control,” Keller said. “We’re aren’t holding anything back from investigators. Nobody we think might have been involved has any access to the system, but I’m not going to start invading the privacy of someone who has just been accused,” and not formally charged with any criminal activity.
Health and Human Services Director Jean Turner, in an attempt to address questions and concerns voiced by the public, released Friday a set of what she called 13 “Frequently Asked Questions” associated with the investigation.
In the FAQ, Turner cited the ongoing investigation and said the county cannot answer many questions that are being asked.
Though Keller would not disclose if any HHS personnel have been fired or put on leave in connection with the allegations of embezzlement, Turner’s FAQ suggests that the person or persons who are under investigation are still on the county payroll.
Question 11 on Turner’s FAQ asks, “Why are we still paying employees who stole public money? Why haven’t you fired them?”
In response, Turner said, “we are working with investigators and county counsel regarding these issues and will take strong and appropriate action.”
As far as identifying those who are allegedly involved in the investigation and what their job titles are, Turner said, “Because of the on-going criminal investigation and because this also is a personnel matter, I cannot give you this information. As soon as the criminal investigation concludes, the investigators will be able to provide much more information.”
Turner also said it is unclear at this time how many employees were involved in the alleged embezzlement. “We don’t know whether others were involved, but expect the investigation to answer that question,” Turner said. “Most of our employees are dedicated, ethical workers serving the public good, like the workers who reported the problem.”
Turner also said she will not speculate on the amount of money that may have been stolen. “We won’t know how much money is involved until the investigation is completed, but it is a substantial amount of money,” Turner said. “It would be irresponsible to speculate how much money was taken until the investigation is completed … It wouldn’t be appropriate or responsible to put out numbers that have not been confirmed or completely tallied.”
Turner went on to say that the method of the alleged theft is part of the ongoing investigation and it will fall to the Bishop PD and District Attorney’s Office to determine if that information should be released to the public. “We are very committed to finding out how this happened in spite of numerous internal departmental and county security measures as well as outside audits performed by independent state and federal auditors,” Turner said.
What Turner was able to release is that it appears at this time that the money was taken from state-allocated funds for public assistance and other county employees discovered missing funds after “seeing irregularities and reported it last week.”
Inyo County Health and Human Services has 133 employees, with 18 working in the Public Assistance Program, which has a budget of approximately $100 million in state and federal funds. “The funds are sent to the county from the state and can be used only for public assistance to eligible county residents,” Turner said.
Turner also said that the county has not taken any action to seek restitution of the missing funds. “Restitution is an issue that is a long way off, but we will absolutely be asking that question of the District Attorney or anyone else who may be able to help us recover the taxpayers’ money.”

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