Inyo County Health and Human Services Director Jean Turner said last week that she assumes full responsibility for the embezzlement of $1.5 million that took place under her watch in the county’s Public Assistance Office.
In an interview on Friday, July 26, Turner shed some light on department conditions and some circumstances surrounding the theft, which was allegedly perpetrated over an eight-year period by a longtime department manager who, along with her husband, is now facing 34 charges related to the embezzlement.
“It happened on my watch, I’m the department head,” Turner said. “I take responsibility for this. I take responsibility for things that happen in my department every day. It makes me sick.”
When news of the theft broke, Turner said, “the first thing that happened here was a level of disbelief from myself down to the front-line staff who all worked with this individual.”
Then, she said, employees experienced a range of emotions. “People were sickened and feel betrayed because we have invested a lot in HHS over the years in training, we have staff days, we take our public service mission pretty seriously, we take our integrity pretty seriously … we don’t ever lose sight of the fact that we are working with taxpayer dollars.”
With the taxpayers and their money in mind, Turner said she wanted to shed some light on how the embezzlement was possible, calling it a “perfect storm” of circumstances.
“We know quite a bit about how it could have happened now,” Turner said. “It was pretty masterful. And we’ve taken a lot of steps to shore up security measures that were already in place.”
Those security measures were supposed to include a three-person management team that operated as oversight with members having little or no caseloads of their own.
The Public Assistance Office helps income-eligible residents apply for state money in the form of cash aid and EBT cards/food stamps.
Turner said the department was originally arranged so that the three supervisors could share assignments to ensure compliance with rules and regulations and ensure client cases are written up accurately.
“The three supervisors, historically, were not supposed to carry any caseloads themselves,” except in extraordinary circumstances such as a case involving family members of employees, Turner said.
Turner explained that the third supervisor, who was based in Lone Pine, retired in 2010.
“We had multiple failed recruitments” and couldn’t fill a position in Lone Pine, Turner said, adding that people were interested in the position, but only if it could be based in Bishop.
So Turner’s Plan B was to fill the position, base it in Bishop, and have the three supervisors alternate duties in Lone Pine.
The third supervisor was not hired until last summer and, a second supervisor “was out for some intermittent periods for some personal issues that I need to let remain private,” Turner said. “That’s significant, because when you look at parceling out checks-and-balances roles among your supervisors, when you go from three to two you’ve lost a third set of eyes and ears looking at things. And that went on for several years.”
She added that, due to the absence of the second supervisor, the department was “off and on” down to one supervisor. “That’s a problem.”
But Turner said that personnel issues leading to lack of direct oversight was not the only factor contributing to the embezzlement going unnoticed.
Another was the suspect’s alleged ability to find ways to bypass checks and balances built in to HHS’ automated computer system.
“It’s a pretty complex automation system – I don’t know it,” Turner said. “Nobody outside that division knows how to navigate through that system, just those first-line supervisors. That’s pretty standard in my Department. In all of my major programs we have about 14 different automation systems, and typically the first-line supervisors, and possibly a program manager, if one is stationed in the building, would know how to navigate that system. But usually people outside those programs don’t know all of those specifics. They’re very complex systems.”
In addition to security measures in-house, Turner said the California HHS has checks and balances via which they require different employees to manage different tasks. She said county fiscal staff reconciles financial reports with client lists and reconciles the bank statements. “Those were all reconciling,” Turner said.
State auditors also pull the cases randomly to review them and the county auditor’s office does an annual fiscal audit.
Turner said it was “astounding” that this many people, at this many levels, were “duped” by the suspect.
Turner said that one thing she believes put pressure on the case and helped staff identify a problem was the implementation of healthcare reform that required employees to begin focusing on certain tasks. Turner said that change required each individual case to be filtered through multiple employees, rather than a single case-worker managing all aspects of a single case.
“The task-based assignments I think really helped. It means you have a lot of people looking at everyone else’s work,” Turner said, adding that is a change the department will be keeping in place.
“We’re going to shore up, and have shored up everything that we can think of,” Turner said. “Can I sit here and say to you, and guarantee the public this will never happen again in my department? I don’t want to be that stupid, because I’ve learned a lot through these trainings about fraud and embezzlement by employees and how prevalent it is in the country. And it’s pretty astounding, really. It’s kinda shaken me, if anything, in kind of my belief in human beings. You want to believe the best in people … that’s a nice belief to hold on to, but I’m also running a business … that’s my commitment to the public and my employees.”