Some state workers getting free ride
Bob Segall/13 Investigates
Indianapolis - State officials are now taking away hundreds of government-issued take-home vehicles for state employees after an Eyewitness News investigation discovered many of those vehicles are used primarily for commuting instead of business. An analysis by 13 Investigates finds the state's take-home car system is plagued by poor record keeping and little oversight. And while state officials admit they do not yet know the scope of the problem, it's estimated employee commuting has cost Hoosier taxpayers millions.
Some state employees really don't want to talk about their take-home cars - like George Thompson.
Last year, the chief attorney for the Indiana Department of Homeland Security drove his state-owned Ford Crown Victoria nearly 28,000 miles, and few of those miles came while on the job. Internal documents show Thompson's take-home car racked up about 21,000 miles simply driving back and forth from his home in Bloomington to his office at the State Government Center in downtown Indianapolis. The 103-mile roundtrip commute happened about 200 times in 2009.
Other Homeland Security workers commute in their state-issued vehicles even further than that – up to 170 miles roundtrip every day – and the paper trail is nearly as long as the drive.
30 WORKERS = A QUARTER MILLION MILES
Eyewitness News analyzed stacks of mileage reports obtained from the Indiana Department of Homeland Security. The documents show 30 IDHS workers used a combined 14,000 gallons of gasoline to commute about 8200 times, totaling nearly 260,000 miles from their homes to their work stations in 2009. That's more than a quarter million commuting miles for just 30 employees in one year! (Those same workers recorded about 233,000 business miles.) The department gave take-home vehicles to 137 staff members last year, so its total commuting numbers are actually much higher – and you get to pay for it.
Thompson told WTHR "no comment" when asked about his state-funded commute, and IDHS director Joe Wainscott refused to meet with Eyewitness News to discuss his agency's take-home vehicles. But in a written statement, a department spokesman explained many homeland security employees are on call 24 hours a day and need a state vehicle to respond to potential emergencies or disasters. Others work out of their vehicles – not an office – and need those cars to perform inspections, according to the statement.
But 13 Investigates found IDHS also issues take-home vehicles to staff who are not emergency responders and inspectors, such as Thompson and IDHS public information officer John Erickson.
Erickson drives back and forth to Indianapolis from his home in Columbus. The 79-mile roundtrip commute accounted for about 7400 of the 9800 miles driven late last year on Erickson's state-owned Ford Escape.
"I have a take-home vehicle because I am on call, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week if I am needed to quickly communicate essential messages for the safety of Hoosiers," Erickson told WTHR. "I may need to go a joint information center or a disaster scene to coordinate risk communications to the public." When asked whether he could do that in a personal vehicle instead of one funded by state taxpayers, Erickson provided no response.
2009 mileage reports show both Erickson and Thompson, as well as many other IDHS workers, routinely fell far short of the 1000 business miles the Indiana Department of Administration likes to see each month to help justify the need for a state take-home vehicle. The vast majority of their mileage was for commuting only, and WTHR's 6-month investigation has discovered the same holds true for employees at other departments, as well.
THOUSANDS OF VEHICLES
While most state workers in Indiana are required to find their own transportation to get to their jobs every day, about 3000 employees scattered throughout 32 state agencies receive a take-home vehicle. More than a third of the vehicles are assigned to Indiana State Police, and troopers use them to patrol. But within Indiana State Police and other agencies, state vehicles are also issued to employees who have office jobs. Many of those workers drive few miles on the job and a lot of miles just to get there.
"We're taking a very close look at those who are going to an office, doing managerial or other desk work, and aren't on the road on a regular basis," said Mark Everson, commissioner of the Indiana Department of Administration. "That's what we're looking at now and clearly we're going to reduce that number in coming weeks."
Everson's department oversees the state's fleet of 10,225 vehicles, and he quickly points out the total number of state-owned cars, trucks and SUVs is considerably lower than it was five years ago. "We've driven that number down by 20 percent," he said, emphasizing the state has phased out more than 2,400 vehicles that have not been replaced.
But while IDOA carefully tracks each vehicles' total mileage, tracking commuting mileage is a different story, according to IDOA general counsel Tony Green.
"We really haven't had the ability to do that," Green told 13 Investigates in December. "We've been looking at the take-home commuting but, to be quite honest, it's been hard to get a handle on that."
Asked how many commuting miles are driven each year in state-issued vehicles and how much that commuting has cost state taxpayers, Everson replied, "I don't have an overall figure on that."
Based on the state's current record-keeping system, Eyewitness News has discovered accurately tracking employee commuting mileage would be a massive challenge because there is little attention paid to detail.
DRIVING TO NOWHERE?
13 Investigates found state employees have submitted thousands of sloppy, inaccurate and incomplete mileage reports, making it impossible to tell where the workers have been driving their state cars.
While completing mileage logs, some state workers routinely choose to record no starting point or destination, while omitting their reason for travel and failing to document commuting and personal miles driven.
WTHR's analysis found:
Identical mileage reports that had been photocopied and submitted for multiple months of travel
Duplicate entries (for the same travel on the same date) with inconsistent odometer readings
Total odometer readings that do not match total miles driven
Unexplained excess mileage not included in daily commute totals
Home-to-office trips not listed as commutes based on an en-route stop for a carwash, oil change or other vehicle service
Eyewitness News found numerous inconsistencies within IDHS mileage reports, including more than 2000 miles of unexplained travel by the department's director. WTHR asked for an explanation, but none was provided.
It is unclear just how much the widespread paperwork problems might be costing the state. The Internal Revenue Service requires employees to keep track of each commute driven in a work-provided vehicle and, for most government employees, the reimbursement rate is $1.50 for each one-way commute – regardless of the distance.
"The paperwork and reporting needs to be improved and is being improved as time goes on, but I wouldn't suggest it's anywhere where it needs to be," Everson told Eyewitness News. "We need to get better."
Some state agencies refused to provide WTHR with any details about their take-home vehicles, citing an exemption in state law which allows a department that conducts law-enforcement activities to withhold such information for all its take-home cars. Those agencies, such as the Gaming Commission, Horse Racing Commission, and Alcohol and Tobacco Commission, are not required to maintain detailed mileage reports at all.
Even with incomplete records, it's estimated commuting in these state-issued vehicles has cost Hoosier taxpayers millions of dollars, and it comes at a time when Indiana is trying to cut costs by laying off state workers and slashing school funding.
"No doubt there's a significant expense on the commuting, and that's why we're taking a look at that," said Everson.
"This has become a problem," said State Senator Luke Kenley (R–Noblesville) after looking at mileage reports showing hundreds of thousands of miles in state-funded commuting. "Now that we have money problems, it's obviously a more exacerbating situation."
As chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the State Budget Committee, Kenley says state cars used primarily for personal commuting won't sit well with lawmakers or with taxpayers. "I think they're entitled to feel frustrated. Most of us expect that's a personal expense."
And keep in mind, you're not just paying for the gas. Indiana taxpayers are also paying for all of the maintenance and repairs, as well as the cost of the vehicles. Mitch Roob, director of the Indiana Economic Development Corporation, drives a state-owned Toyota Sequoia that cost $36,295.
DRIVEN TO ACTION
Since 13 Investigates began requesting thousands of mileage logs in November, state agencies have revoked 295 vehicles that had been designated for take-home use. Even some of the state's top officials have parked their cars. The commissioner of Workforce Development, Indiana's Adjutant General and the director of the State Fair Commission have all decided not to take their state cars home anymore. And just days after WTHR asked to see George Thompson's mileage reports, the IDHS attorney turned in his Crown Victoria. IDHS has since taken away take-home cars and commuting privileges from a dozen other workers, too.
More cuts are just down the road.
In December, two weeks after WTHR requested fleet inventory reports and justification forms for all state-owned take-home cars, Governor Mitch Daniels directed further reductions in the state vehicle fleet.
Since then, IDOA has launched a vehicle-by-vehicle analysis of all state take-home cars to determine which ones are underutilized for state business. For the first time, IDOA is now requiring all agencies to project both their business and commuting mileage in an effort to weed out unnecessary take-home vehicles.
"Hundreds of more vehicles will come off the books," Everson explained. "We're making those reductions right now in a detailed car-by-car review that we're going through of each agency… That can be uncomfortable. If someone's used to having a vehicle for a long time, they don't like to give it up. But we're taking them away where we think it's warranted."
After learning of WTHR's investigation, Kenley says the State Budget Committee will ask state agencies for a full report on state vehicle use.