By Amy Lester, Oklahoma Impact Team
OKLAHOMA CITY -- At any given time, tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars could be going to Department of Public Safety employees sitting at home. Earlier this month, DPS had seven employees on administrative leave with a price tag of $32,939 a month.
"That's ridiculous. You know, it's absurd. If you operated like that in the private sector you'd go broke. If you operated like that in the private sector, you wouldn't have a job," said State Auditor and Inspector, Steve Burrage.
Burrage questioned the number of people on administrative leave and why it sometimes takes months, even years, for DPS to conclude its internal investigations.
"There needs to be a system in place so we just don't continue to waste taxpayers' money," Burrage said.
Burrage started to question DPS policies while conducting an investigative audit. The Attorney General asked him to look into several allegations including whether Trooper Joe Howard and Mechanic Michael Lane stole state helicopter parts. The two were captured on surveillance video removing parts from the Troop O hangar at Wiley Post. Burrage said DPS had no inventory records so he couldn't tell what the agency had or if anything went missing.
"I was shocked an entity that is in charge of ensuring the safety and soundness of our citizens cannot even tell you where a piece of inventory went," Burrage said.
In the end, the Attorney General decided against criminal charges. In a letter to DPS, he called the activities of the Trooper and Mechanic "highly suspect." Yet, the letter stated, because of inadequate records and poor management, "it is impossible to determine if any individual...embezzled any of the equipment."
Burrage said he was frustrated with that outcome.
"With all do respect to everyone involved, and I am not an attorney, I thought there was enough circumstantial evidence in the audit report for prosecution," Burrage said.
The trooper and mechanic's lawyer, Gary James, disagreed calling that statement reckless. He said his clients didn't steal anything. He pointed out, Trooper Howard was named Trooper of the Year after being one of the pilots during the rescue of a Kingfisher couple shown live on televisions across the country.
During the investigation, Trooper Howard was on administrative leave for nearly a year and eight months. Both the Trooper and Mechanic are back at work now, as the internal investigation continues.
The length of time some stay on leave and the number of employees on leave has State Representative Jason Murphey asking questions too.
"As a taxpayer, it's obviously upsetting and infuriating and something needs to be done, absolutely," Murphey said.
Murphey called for a change in policy and law to give DPS more tools to act faster.
"My understanding is that they're a little gun shy because of past instances where the merit protection judges have ruled that there were some inappropriate dismissals," Murphey said.
Troopers and many other state employees are protected by the Oklahoma Merit System. A DPS lawyer said that makes it difficult to terminate anyone. In the past, the Oklahoma Merit Protection Commission's administrative law judges have forced DPS to take people back or reverse disciplinary action. That combined with possible criminal charges can slow the process down.
"When it takes these criminal prosecutions a year, six months, or a year or longer, we don't want to do anything administratively that could influence the outcome of that case," said Captain Chris West, spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety.
When asked about the seven employees on leave collecting nearly $33,000 a month, West explained those are the processes the administration is choosing, at this time.
"We understand, especially in tough budgetary times, $33,000 is a lot of money but, again, what we have to stay focused on, we don't want to do anything that's going to contaminate or influence any potential criminal proceedings," West said.
That statement didn't sit well the State Auditor. Burrage said he believes DPS' current system does not work well enough.
"Thirty-three thousand dollars a month is ridiculous when the taxpayers are not getting anything in return," Burrage said. "Review their policies and procedures, when is it proper to put somebody on administrative leave with pay, at what point should they be fired, simple."
Prater said he's willing to take a look at the helicopter parts investigation, in light of the audit's findings. He passed the investigation to the Attorney General's office since it involved multiple counties. West said those involved could still face disciplinary action.