McNeill center for predators rife with fraud

SEATTLE — Employee fraud and absenteeism have plagued Washington state’s center for dangerous sex predators on McNeil Island, an investigation by The Seattle Times found.

As many as 85 workers at the Special Commitment Center are suspected of abusing overtime and paid leave, and two employees were paid $32,000 in overtime for work they never performed, the newspaper reported.

Neither has been punished because an investigation by the state Auditor’s Office still isn’t completed, two and a half years after it began.

“They got paid for work they didn’t do — that’s theft of state resources,” said the center’s former superintendent, Kelly Cunningham, referring to several cases.

Nevertheless, since January, the center has fired eight employees, suspended four and slapped 26 others with letters of reprimand or other discipline for misconduct unrelated to the auditor’s probe. Among those fired: a high-ranking manager who turned in a made-up investigative report, staffers accused of viewing pornography on their work computers, and two employees who forged doctor’s notes to cover up their absenteeism.

The Times based its investigation on hundreds of pages of public records and numerous interviews.

The center, which has 371 employees, detains and treats the state’s most dangerous sex offenders after they’ve completed their prison terms; the offenders are deemed too dangerous to return to society. Workers there are disciplined at a rate four times that of workers in the state prison system, The Times reported.

Earlier this year, The Times reported that the state had wasted millions of dollars at the center because of lack of oversight, unchecked defense costs and delayed commitment trials. The state spends about $170,000 a year for each of the 297 sex offenders on McNeil Island.

In 2009, Cunningham — then the center’s new superintendent — was asked to cut staff and expenses as the state budget crisis peaked. As he looked for ways to save money, he was surprised to see the center paying about $150,000 a month in overtime.

He and other managers found rampant problems. He warned staffers they would face stiff discipline if they abused policies on attendance and leave.

Comparing time sheets and sick-leave slips with shift reports and security-card readers, they found that more than 20 percent of the staff had inconsistencies in their attendance, according to an internal report obtained by The Times through a public-records request.

Employees were getting paid for hours in which they were never even on the island or had left early, based on shift reports, logs and card readers, Cunningham said.

He also believed some employees had developed a scheme in which one would call in sick so another would get paid overtime to cover the shift, and then they’d switch roles and do it again.

Believing the conduct might be criminal, Cunningham said he asked the Washington State Patrol to investigate, but it deferred to the state auditor. Cunningham submitted a detailed report to the auditor in summer 2010.

The report included blatant examples of attendance abuse, Cunningham said. He believed all his review needed was a “bow on it.”

But the agency’s investigation has lingered for two and half years. The auditor’s director of special investigations, Jim Brittain, says other cases were given priority, and the McNeil Island investigation should be completed by the end of next month.

If the audit finds evidence of criminal activity, it will refer its conclusions to the state Attorney General’s Office for any criminal charges and attempt to recoup state money.

Cunningham, who left the center in August to become a deputy director at the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, said he was frustrated the Auditor’s Office didn’t finish its investigation before he transferred.

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