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Auditor: Former Water Quality Employee Filed Bogus Travel Claims

Auditors uncovered more than $144,000 in salary and travel reimbursements that a former Division of Water Quality employee allegedly claimed improperly.

The Utah State Auditor is recommending the criminal prosecution of an employee who allegedly filed bogus travel claims.

The case emerged after the Utah Department of Environmental Quality became suspicious last fall and confronted the employee about the reimbursement requests. The employee retired from the Division of Water Quality, but the environmental agency asked the State Auditor’s office for help untangling the claims.

“What we found is basically – and this is likely understating things – over $20,000 in hotel costs that were invalid,” says State Auditor John Dougall.

His team cross-checked state records with the receipts available from 133 hotels. Auditors discovered just a small fraction of the records matched travel claims made over a decade. Most appeared to be fabricated or falsified. One time the employee stayed in a Wasatch Front hotel while filing a claim for a Blanding hotel. Another time he was getting cash advances in Mesquite while billing the state for rooms in Panguitch and Tropic.

Dougal also says the employee took over $124,000 in salary on those phony business trips.

“To us,” he says, “that’s both theft of public funds and theft in terms of timecard.”

Dougall’s office has recommended criminal charges as well as tighter controls on DEQ money.

“My office is to be a watchdog on behalf of taxpayers, to make sure their tax money is being spent legally, efficiently and effectively.”

DEQ Director Alan Matheson says his agency is following the auditor’s advice.

“Anybody who would violate that trust has done a disservice to the public, to our agency,” he says, “and we simply will not tolerate those who don’t uphold their public duty.”

DEQ has asked the Attorney General’s office to consider the case, but there was no word late Monday on the status of the AG’s review.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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