Go To Search
Click to Home
Vehicle Misuse in City Government
By Nicholas Broussard

We’ve all seen the parking lot of a local restaurant frequented by government employees. In Austin, Chu Mikhals Café draws government employees like moths to light—their meatloaf is incredible. The parking area overflows with vehicles sporting logos from the State of Texas, Travis County, and the City of Austin. On one hand, there’s nothing wrong with employees using their government-issued vehicles to grab lunch. This allowance is often written into policy. On the other hand, the public wants to know that government assets—paid for by their sales and property tax dollars—are used in an acceptable manner. 
shutterstock_313140188_350_px.jpg 



WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL?

At Austin’s Office of the City Auditor, the Integrity Unit regularly investigates allegations of vehicle misuse. We dive deep into City Code and departmental policies to determine whether employees are being good stewards of government-issued property. The topic may seem petty, but municipally-owned vehicles are public-facing assets with which residents regularly interact, and are therefore a proxy for appropriate stewardship of government funds. When used inappropriately, taxpayers perceive glaring examples of fraud, waste, and abuse. Imagine seeing a shiny new Chevy Volt sitting in a movie theatre parking lot far outside your city’s allowable coverage area. First off, why do governments buy fancy, expensive vehicles that most residents can’t afford? Second, why are residents subsidizing the leisure activities of government workers? We get these calls all the time.

In Austin, accountability and acceptable use are complicated by two factors. First, we maintain a massive fleet. Our central Fleet Services Office (FSO) controls nearly 4,500 vehicles, with estimated operating costs of $60.3 million in 2019. FSO’s primary functions include lifecycle management, service center operation, and fueling station maintenance. Second, Austin’s vehicle distribution, which follows a decentralized-use model where vehicles are placed in various departments, makes asset management difficult. On the low side, the Water Utility stewards 268 vehicles at an annual operating cost of $1.9 million. On the high side, the Police Department stewards over 1,000 vehicles at an annual operating cost of $8.7 million, according to Austin’s 2018-2019 proposed budget.1  Bottom line: vehicles are a big deal.


NAPPERS AND PICKPOCKETS

From a fraud perspective, there are two challenges facing municipal fleet operations regarding vehicle use. First, Austin’s City Vehicle Assignment Policy states that “personal use of a city vehicle is prohibited.”2  In fairness to frequent customers of Chu Mikhals, lunch breaks are explicitly acceptable. Regardless of the language in the policy, acceptable use can be ambiguous. For starters, departments maintain their own acceptable use policies specific to the roles and responsibilities of their employees. Some employees take vehicles home. Others pick up and drop off their vehicles daily from city-maintained parking areas. Some, such as Code Department inspectors, freely drive anywhere in Austin during the workday. Others, such as medical professionals, can only drive to specific professional functions. This leeway can be an issue, as we found in multiple investigations. In one instance, a Code inspector drove in excess of 1,330 miles for personal matters.3 In another, Austin Public Health inspectors used their vehicles for daycare trips and naps.4

In the case of vague departmental guidance, employees are left asking management what is acceptable on a case-by-case basis. We recently ran into trouble clarifying acceptable activities for a non-uniformed employee who works closely with firefighters. Here, uniformed employees were allowed two hours each week to exercise at a location of their choosing, be it a public park or a private CrossFit gym. The non-uniformed employee thought they could do the same thing, even though their job duties had nothing to do with physical fitness. After months conducting an investigation to verify vehicle misuse, we found that there was no intentional wrongdoing by the employee, simply understandable confusion as to what activities were allowed.

The City of Austin isn’t alone in dealing with these issues. The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners suggests that “the most common example of misuse of assets is using equipment to do personal work on company time.”5 Given this finding, it is essential to fraud mitigation that leaders clarify the boundaries of personal activity during the workday.

There are further reasons for confusion among civilian employees who work alongside uniformed officers. In these settings, normative culture prevails. For example, Austin’s police officers leave their vehicles running at all times while on duty. Even when taking a break to eat, their patrol cars idle. According to a police department service manager, this is meant to facilitate quick response to crime scenes. Regardless of the reader’s opinion of this practice by police, such behavior is clearly unnecessary and therefore unacceptable for civilian vehicle operators.

The second fraud-related challenge regarding vehicle misuse is proper utilization of the supporting infrastructure, such as fueling stations and repair facilities. Sites are sometimes unsecured or only require badge access through which multiple employees can piggy-back on one swipe. Once inside, equipment is sometimes free to use and parts are easy to take. My unit recently investigated theft at a service center. The employee-turned-garage-pickpocket “used vehicle parts and oil owned by the City for his personal use on at least five occasions.”6 Likewise, in Los Angeles County a Fire Department supervisor stole generators and vehicle batteries from service centers. He even “had two employees deliver County equipment to his residence.”7  Small instances of theft are indicative of systemic problems related to physical security and inventory management, lending to inappropriate behavior that facilitates disregard for acceptable use policies.

Additionally, employees may be able to steal fuel for personal use. In March 2017, the City of Atlanta reported that a Fire Department employee regularly stole gasoline from fueling stations for personal use. He simply swiped his card and filled gas cans that he later emptied into his personal vehicle, stealing at least 50 gallons over the course of a few months.8 To top it off, there are seldom restrictions as to the quantity of fuel an employee can use. For example, police officers may have unlimited access to gasoline considering their wide patrol areas and accepted idling practices. This allowance leads to imprudent fuel use. On a recent ride-along with the Austin Police Department, I sat in the passenger’s seat as we traveled 15 miles outside the officer’s patrol area just to get pancakes at Kerbey Lane Cafe. Unlimited access often leads to unlimited abuse.


TOOLS OF THE TRADE

The Integrity Unit takes vehicle misuse very seriously. At the tactical level, we have a litany of tools by which to investigate allegations of misuse. City vehicles are sometimes GPS-enabled. If not, we use our own GPS tracking devices. This shows us if employees are where they’re supposed to be. To cross-reference tracking data, we pull badge-swipe access data from work sites. We are also authorized to follow and observe employee’s during the work day, given allegations of misconduct. Most recently, we gained access to toll data, which is a time-stamped record from a third-party transportation agency. Taken together, these reference points tell a story that is cross-referenced against a subject’s own description of events. A primary tenet of our office’s mission is to “provide investigative services that foster transparency [and] accountability.” Rooting out violations of acceptable vehicle use clearly adheres to this mandate, as the wayward employees are held accountable and our public reports offer transparency.

There are significant efforts in the City of Austin to prevent resource misuse. At the operational level, the Auditor’s Office releases reports that emphasize process improvement, with a focus on stemming fraudulent activity. We’ve analyzed inventory management,9 permit oversight,10 and maintenance practices,11 all of which involve minimizing the potential for vehicle misuse by employees. For each report, our teams work vigilantly to forecast managerial and oversight gaps that may allow nefarious behavior. Furthermore, at the strategic level Austin is dedicated to promoting good practices to prevent wrongdoing. Our newest budget requires departments to justify their operating expenditures as aligned with strategic outcomes. Two important strategic outcomes are “Mobility” and “Government that Works” as defined in Strategic Direction 2023,12 our 5-year municipal master plan. Acceptable vehicle use falls squarely within both categories.


WHAT NOW?

Deloitte finds that successful audit departments fight fraud, waste, and abuse through “holistic” innovations that span the entire “enterprise of government.”13 Accordingly, policymakers should consider the following three measures to limit misuse of public vehicles and foster effective vehicle oversight.

First, educate the workforce. Employees should clearly understand what is, and is not, allowed. This is accomplished through education. But it’s not enough to offer ethics training once a year. Employees should be regularly reminded that improper actions will not go unnoticed. This is accomplished by increasing public awareness. The General Services Administration’s How’s My Driving program bolsters the public’s ability to report vehicle misuse, thereby stemming bad behavior.14 Second, increase physical controls and oversight. For example, ensure that all vehicles are GPS trackable. Importantly, the enabling software must be user-friendly and comprehensive. Third, foster a culture of accountability. This doesn’t mean public shaming. On the contrary, research shows that “accountability is likely to be weak” in corporate cultures where the bad is prioritized over the good.15  Foster accountability by highlighting adherence to best practices, facilitating training opportunities, and setting the example in your personal behavior.

Taken together, these recommendations align with lessons learned in the field of fraud prevention. Effective stewardship of taxpayer-provided assets should be a priority for municipal leaders. Asset management challenges, generally, and vehicle misuse, specifically, can be solved through coordinated, leadership-driven system overhauls.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nick Broussard joined Austin's Office of the City Auditor as an Audit Investigator in February 2018. He's a graduate of West Point and the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. Prior to joining in the City of Austin, he served as a U.S. Army Infantry Officer, leading combat operations across Central Asia and the Horn of Africa.