Documents: Misuse of gas cards widespread

Published 12:07 am Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Newly obtained documents show systemic misuse of gasoline cards by Jackson city officials is widespread.

From July to October, an audit of the Fuelman discount gas program revealed that 945 of the 1,088 employees authorized to use a card made questionable purchases, resulting in about 24,260 flagged transactions, the newspaper says.

The Clarion-Ledger reported Sunday that documents the Jackson newspaper recently obtained show the misuse ranges from low-level employees and to the mayor’s office.

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The city is not currently investigating employees. The state auditor’s office would not confirm or deny it is investigating.

Among those whose purchases were marked as potential problems were Mayor Frank Melton and the Jackson police officer in charge of the department’s fleet. Another JPD officer was cited for questionable purchases 172 times in that 90-day period.

Memos from city leaders show problems have lingered for at least three years, but city officials have said they cannot single out honest mistakes from blatant stealing.

“We don’t have the internal controls in place to make sure every drop of fuel is going into city vehicles — and we’re aware of this,” said Valerie Nevels, the head of the city’s internal audit division.

City officials did say several public works and police employees have been arrested in the past after being accused of stealing gas. They have not estimated how much money the city may have lost in recent years through Fuelman purchases.

Jackson uses Fuelman to fill up city-owned and operated vehicles. The service gives the city a 30-cent-a-gallon discount at participating stations.

The city is working to fix the problems, Nevels said.

In October, the audit division sent notices to employees, warning them that they would face disciplinary action if they misuse the gas cards or fail to turn in proper documentation.

The city is starting a three-strikes program. Employees who have undocumented problem purchases will get a verbal warning first, then a written report, followed by an unpaid leave or termination, Nevels said.

City staff have reviewed the fuel policies with department leaders.

The city has set aside about $4.03 million for fuel this fiscal year, which started Oct. 1. The city came in under budget for fuel in 2007-08, budgeting $4.64 million and spending $4.02 million.

On Aug. 1, 2005, Melton and Chief Administrative Officer Robert Walker sent a memo to department directors saying irregular fuel charges had been showing up. The memo warned that if those purchases continued, disciplinary action would be taken. The problems continued, eventually raising concerns from the city council.

Councilman Jeff Weill has proposed that the city reduce the number of workers with gas cards, prohibit people from manually keying in card numbers and cut back on the 168 area stations that accept the cards.

“I want to move forward. I want to solve this problem,” Weill said. “I also want to look back and do something about the employees who inappropriately used the cards, ranging from admonitions all the way to firing or prosecution.”