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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, May 4, 2002

Prison overtime pay reaches $7.3 million

By Johnny Brannon
Advertiser Staff Writer

High overtime, sick leave and poor management of the financial accounts of prison inmates continue to plague the state Department of Public Safety, according to a report released yesterday by state auditor Marion Higa.

The department has also been slow to recover money that was overpaid to workers who called in sick after pay records covering their absent days were processed, and officials are unable to document the value of department facilities as required for accounting records, the audit found.

Some Halawa Correctional Facility workers earned more overtime than their regular salaries during the fiscal year that ended last June, and many others in the department took nearly three times as many sick days than the average for state employees, auditors found.

But department director Ted Sakai said the report oversimplifies some situations and portrays isolated problems as if they were widespread.

"Our people are pros, and they stick it out year after year and they do a good job" he said. "It's simply unfair to them."

Annual overtime spending for the state's correctional facilities has dropped from $9.8 million in 1999 to $7.37 million during the year covered by the audit, Sakai said.

"I think we've gotten overtime under much better control than it's ever been," he said, adding that high stress levels inherent in prison and jail work contribute to the high sick leave rates.

"Look at the particular environment we work with and the clientele," he said. "We simply work with the worst people in Hawai'i."

Higa acknowledged that overtime had decreased, but the report found that "unusual" patterns of sick leave among some workers forced the department to fill their positions with others on overtime.

"I think overall it says there's been some improvement but that there are some areas that need to be looked at," Higa said.

State employees take an average of 10 days of sick leave per year, but the uniformed staff of the Department of Public Safety took an average of 27 days, the audit found.

Auditors found that 40 percent of the pay earned by a sample group of 25 correctional officers and other prison workers was overtime, and that each reaped an average of $22,000 in overtime. And although the workers earn 21 days of sick leave per year, they took an average of 36 sick days off, using time accrued in previous years.

"We're wondering whether there's some abuse of overtime, and we're tying this to what appears to be abuse of sick leave as well," Higa said.

The average annual overtime pay for all the department's employees was $4,710, and "the department was not aware of the situation and was unable to explain why this occurred," according to the report.

Sakai said the department constantly struggles to replace workers who leave because other jobs pay more or are less stressful, and that overtime must be used to fill gaps.

"Just because a position is vacant doesn't mean we can say we're not going to watch this particular group of inmates," he said. "We have to do it."

Special circumstances require additional overtime, such as when an inmate threatens suicide or must be hospitalized under guard, he said.

He acknowledged that a Sheriff's Division lieutenant had recently been reassigned from security duty at Honolulu International Airport pending an investigation into alleged overtime abuse.

The Department of Public Safety also failed to withhold money from some prisoners ordered by courts to pay restitution to their victims or to help support their children, according to Higa.

Five of the state's eight prisons and jails did not seize money from inmates who must pay restitution, and the department has no procedure for identifying inmates ordered to pay child support. Instead, such payments were made only on the rare occasion when an inmate requested them.

"They just seem to be following some minimal requirements without looking at the net result, which is that the children are not getting the money they're entitled to," Higa said. "Even a token amount of support indicates that the inmates accept their obligation to their children, and I think that's the principle at stake here."

Officials also did not properly liquidate prison bank accounts of many inmates after they were released, and auditors found discrepancies totalling $21,000 between department ledgers and bank balances for inmate accounts at four facilities.

A lack of clear procedures "makes it difficult to determine whether the unreconciled differences were caused by accounting errors or possible misappropriation of funds," the report states.

Sakai agreed that the concerns about victim restitution and child support were valid, and he said he would work with the judiciary and attorney general's office to address them.

He said a recent switch to an automated system had delayed some restitution payments but that the process should now work more smoothly.

The department also must do a better job of collecting salary that is overpaid to workers who call in sick after all their sick days have been used, Higa said.

Because the state's payroll system requires time sheets to be completed days before the end of each pay period, employees who call in sick toward the end of the period get paid for days they did not work, even if they have used all their sick leave. That money is supposed to be paid back.

But the audit found an outstanding balance of $1.8 million in overpayments at the department, which has estimated that it will never be able to collect nearly $600,000. Sakai said most of the $1.8 million was overpaid several years ago, and that the department has been aggressive about recovering the money.

Less than $100,000 has been overpaid since 1999, he said. "We've really put the brakes on that."

Finally, the department was unable to document the reported $134 million value of its facilities and leases. The Governmental Accounting Standards Board now requires such documentation to establish the value of all state assets, which help determine bond ratings and interest rates for borrowing money, Higa said.

Sakai said the department is working to establish the value of some older facilities for which no documentation exists and that new procedures are in place to fulfill other requirements.

Reach Johnny Brannon at jbrannon@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8070.