ODOT can't explain where 14,765 gallons of fuel went - Cincinnati News, FOX19-WXIX TV

FOX19 Investigates: Where did ODOT's fuel go?

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CLINTON COUNTY, OH (FOX19) -

The Ohio Inspector General's Office is awaiting an answer on what happened to $52,637.02 in fuel inventory from two tanks in Clinton County. ODOT has until August 15 to offer an explanation to the state.

In October 2013, the state IG's office opened a statewide investigation into ODOT's fuel use after records showed unexplained fuel adjustments in certain county ODOT pumps. Investigators noted multiple instances where ODOT staffers were adjusting fuel inventories after discrepancies were discovered in ODOT fuel supplies.

THE STATE INVESTIGATION

On Dec. 13, 2013, the Inspector General's Office pulled bulk fuel adjustment reports from all 12 of ODOT's district offices across the state. Investigators noticed massive fuel adjustments in Clinton County. Those adjustments were the highest in the state.

ODOT allows adjustments in fuel supply records for small discrepancies, but agency policies require documented reasons for the difference between what the county thought it had on hand and what it actually had in its tanks. Clinton County's records showed their 2013 adjustments were four times higher than any other county in the state.

Read: Inspector General's full investigation report

"When they went in and actually did a correct count and dipped the tanks according to their policy and procedure, they were short close to 15,000 gallons of fuel," Ohio Inspector General Randall Meyer told FOX19. "Just the amount of fuel adjusted out of the system, there was a problem there," Meyer said.

On Jan. 21, 2014 IG investigators went to ODOT's Clinton County headquarters and met with staff to figure out where the 14,756 gallons of fuel went. The IG also wanted to know if fraud, waste or abuse led to the missing fuel.

[Photos: Missing ODOT fuel investigation]

During the interviews, investigators quickly learned ODOT staffers and managers inside District 8 were not following the agency's policies and procedures designed to prevent loss and theft of taxpayer-funded resources. "None of the policies were followed at the Clinton County garage," Meyer said.

Investigators turned their attention to the man in charge of the Clinton County ODOT garages, county manager Mike Lovelace. On Jan. 30, the IG's office spoke with Lovelace at his office outside Wilmington. Investigators were looking to figure out whether Lovelace's accounting procedures led to this or whether someone made off with public resources.

Lovelace, according to the report, told investigators neither he nor his staff followed ODOT policies in accounting for and tracking fuel supplies at either garage. Lovelace said he relied on an electronic fuel measuring device on the pumps to measure the amounts on hand. The problem the report shows, Lovelace couldn't tell investigators whether those devices were accurate "or ever calibrated."

NOT FOLLOWING ODOT POLICIES

ODOT adopted multiple policies for workers to follow that were designed to prevent fraud, waste and abuse of fuel supplies. Those supplies are mostly paid for with fuel taxes at Ohio gas pumps. The policies were being followed across the state, according to Inspector General Randall Meyer, but were not followed inside Clinton County in the four years of records the IG's office reviewed.  

Read: ODOT inventory management policy 

When an ODOT garage receives a delivery of fuel from a vendor, policy requires an ODOT employee to be present for the delivery. Before a delivery, policy required someone from ODOT to "stick" the tanks before and after the delivery to ensure the gallons purchased were actually pumped into the tanks. The stick procedure is a way to measure exact amounts of fuel inside tanks by dipping a wooden rod into the tank and measuring how high the fuel line is. That measurement is then converted to gallons. That was not happening, according to the Inspector General report.

"If you have a 3 or 400 gallon delivery, you have an employee out there watching that and knowing what's put in; getting the receipt from the driver that delivers the fuel. They admitted that they—at points—never even knew fuel was delivered because they never saw the fuel delivery truck. They just had a receipt lying there and paid it," Meyer told FOX19.

ODOT policies also require staffers to conduct spot checks of fuel supplies in order to keep track of what the garages have used and when to order more fuel. In 2010, ODOT required fuel supply measurements once every three months. In 2011, ODOT reduced that requirement to once every year. In 2013, ODOT relaxed that requirement to one check every two years.

Throughout the Inspector General's report, the phrase "never seen" appears eight different times. Each time it was in reference to ODOT employees' response to the IG when questioned about required policies in dealing with managing fuel supplies provided by tax dollars. Most of those references dealt with ODOT Clinton County Manager Mike Lovelace's two interviews with investigators in January.

The report found, of the 18 sections in ODOT's county manager training handbook, "The training curriculum for county managers did not contain any instruction on how to maintain proper inventory or manage bulk fuel storage."

GETTING ANSWERS

On July 2, we emailed ODOT's communications office in Columbus to request an interview with Mike Lovelace and ODOT management responsible for responding to the Inspector General's investigation. The same day, ODOT communications staffer Steve Faulkner responded, denying our request for interviews. Faulkner suggested we email a list of questions to ODOT and the agency would "work on some answers."

Lovelace never responded to the email we sent him the same day, requesting an interview.

We requested ODOT reconsider denying us access to their managers so we could have the agency explain to taxpayers where the missing fuel is and what they've done to ensure this never happens again. Again, ODOT's Faulkner denied our request.

On July 7, we drove to the Clinton County ODOT headquarters to find Mike Lovelace to question him about the missing fuel. Lovelace told FOX19, "I think it's mainly a clerical error," but Lovelace did not explain where the fuel was. "There's no fuel stolen, I can guarantee you that," Lovelace said.

"The Inspector General says they find reasonable cause to believe wrongful acts or omissions occurred; meaning they can't tell whether it was stolen or just simply unaccounted for," FOX19 reporter Jody Barr asked Lovelace, "That's kind of where you need to talk to Brian (ODOT communications staffer) there and he can kind of give you the information you need," Lovelace responded.

"Have you done anything here differently when it comes to accounting for the fuel that comes through Clinton County?" Barr asked, "We did a process that we've been going through and we've got a process here at Ohio Department of Transportation that we have to go through involving guidelines and that's what we've been doing," Lovelace said.

When asked whether there could be even more that the missing 14,765 gallons missing from ODOT's Clinton County operations, "I don't think so, no," Lovelace said. "What do you want taxpayers to know about how you all have—at least in this instance—handled $52,000 worth of taxpayers resources and what are you going to do to ensure this never happens again, "Barr asked. "I guarantee you their money is going to be in good, safe use. I can guarantee that," Lovelace said.

Lovelace never explained what he and the agency have changed since being served with the Inspector General's report last month.

"Did you know early on in this investigation that you had a problem?" Barr asked Ohio Inspector General Randall Meyer. "Very early on," Meyer said, "Just with the amount of fuel that was adjusted out of the system, there was a problem there."

Meyer delivered his investigative report to ODOT officials on June 16, 2014.

WHAT'S NEXT

ODOT Director Jerry Wray has until August 15 to reply to the Inspector General's investigation. The IG issued multiple recommendations for ODOT to adopt to make sure every gallon used by ODOT was accounted for. The IG still cannot tell whether all or part of the fuel was stolen or poor accounting led to the Clinton County garages losing 14,765 gallons of fuel. "Because of the poor record keeping, there is no way to tell what happened to that fuel," Inspector General Randall Meyer told FOX19.

Here are the recommendations the Inspector General gave to ODOT in June:

  • Determine if "administrative action" is in order for the employees involved in the investigation.
  • Provide ODOT employees with training
  • Document fuel adjustments
  • Reduce the time between ODOT's "spot check" policy from once every two years
  • Establish a uniform policy to address ODOT's varying requirements when it comes to "spot checks" of fuel supplies

ODOT's communications office did not have a response available at the time of this posting. ODOT's Faulkner told FOX19 the agency is still working on its response to the Inspector General and is still reviewing the conduct of the employees named in the investigation. ODOT told FOX19, a final determination on any disciplinary actions would be listed in the agency's response, due by August 15.  

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