State workers rarely punished over driving complaints
Published 4:15 pm, Monday, May 30, 2011
Only a handful of the 1,900 complaints the public has filed over state workers' driving habits have resulted in the keys being taken away.
Typically, according to three year's worth of cases compiled by the state and reviewed for this story, the accused denied any wrongdoing, and the matter was dropped. Or employees were given a verbal or written reminder about road safety.
As one supervisor with the Department of Environmental Protection explained in the records, "I don't think anyone will ever be able to prove who's right and who's wrong."
Still, it is clear from other comments that the fleet.ct.gov website, launched by then-Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell in August 2008, has those at the wheel of taxpayer-funded vehicles more aware than ever they are being watched.
The website is advertised on bumper stickers on state cars.
"I am constantly aware of the huge target I am being out on the road in a state vehicle," wrote one Department of Transportation worker accused of taking an 80 mile per hour Sunday joy ride.
The program is overseen by the state Department of Administrative Services, which maintains a fleet of around 3,300 vehicles spread across a variety of agencies. The agency said that over the past three years it has fielded 1,859 complaints versus 103 compliments.
Forty-three percent of those were for driving dangerously; 34 percent for speeding; 17 percent for talking on a cell phone; 4 percent for being in an inappropriate location; and 2 percent were classified as "other."
Complaints are forwarded by DAS to the appropriate department for an investigation. Turnaround is supposed to take 30 days, although there were examples of months passing between the allegation and the time of a driver's questioning.
"Is it correct that this incident occurred in May of 2010, so almost a year ago?" wrote one Department of Developmental Services employee. "Staff will most likely say they have no recollection of any parking irregularity."
Once a case is closed, the results are supposed to be forwarded to DAS, which issues a bare-bones email to the complainant indicating, "The agency has investigated this incident and assured us an appropriate personnel action has been taken."
DAS provided Hearst Connecticut Newspapers with a database that shows complaints were handled a variety of ways. Agency spokesman John McKay in the accompanying email explained, "You will see that the information relayed back to DAS can be detailed or brief. It's up to the agency on how to handle these complaints and what information they report back."
`RETURNING WITH A DECEDENT'
State workers generally denied, downplayed or did not recall accusations, from near collisions to driving erratically to smoking. DAS redacted workers' names from the database.
"Employee & does not recall making a hand gesture to another driver," read a report from the Department of Children and Families.
A University of Connecticut staffer claimed he or she could not have been driving too fast because the vehicle "is very old and would not be able to maintain such a speed."
An employee with the Department of Public Health speculated the driver who complained she was driving 80 miles per hour was in reality irritated because the state worker was driving cautiously and the other car had to pass her.
One driver with the Southwest Connecticut Mental Health System said he "inadvertently" honked his horn at some pedestrians in a crosswalk when he turned his body.
A Department of Social Services staffer was applying Chap Stick, not eye makeup.
A DEP worker accused of texting was, she said, manipulating rosary beads.
As a Department of Transportation employee put it when confronted about using a cell phone, he "can not help how someone may interpret how he looks."
And sometimes the public was dead wrong, lodging complaints about vehicles that were sitting back at the office, or out-of-state on legitimate business, or providing wildly inaccurate descriptions of state drivers, officials wrote.
"(This employee) doesn't have a green hat nor a facial piercing," a Department of Agriculture supervisor wrote.
However, the driver who complained about witnessing a speeding vehicle from the Chief Medical Examiner's office got it right.
"Two of our forensic techs were returning with a decedent and trying to get back by the end of the shift," read the report.
"This will not happen again. The supervisor & has reprimanded both and will bring this up in his meeting with all staff."
COMPLAINTS CALLED FRIVOLOUS
Larry Dorman is spokesman for Council 4 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents social service workers in state government.
Dorman said the union believes the driving complaint program is unnecessary bureaucracy.
"It's a nuisance and extremely wasteful from our vantage point," Dorman said. "Each complaint requires an investment of time, including human resources, a representative from management, the affected employee and union steward, all of whom should be focusing on how to help (clients)," Dorman said. "The employee is virtually always cleared, and the complaints are frivolous."
The DAS database showed several inconsistencies in how complaints are handled.
It helped to have a good relationship with supervisors, because lacking other evidence they often defended the accused as responsible employees.
In some cases supervisors looking into charges of cell phone use checked call records, but drivers found to have lied about being on the phone were not penalized.
Occasionally, driving refresher courses were recommended.
"All of the investigations have been completed and not one employee admits to any of the allegations," explained a supervisor with the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. "Since we have so many, and we also had several accidents, I am going to provide our staff with a safe driver education (course)."
A DEP staffer and a mailroom employee for an unspecified agency were cautioned about future disciplinary action after three complaints, while a DDS worker who racked up four complaints only earned a written warning.
In contrast, a driver for the Division of Special Revenue was suspended for 10 days after two unspecified complaints and a Department of Veterans' Affairs employee lost his or her driving position after two unspecified offenses.
McKay in an email noted fleet.ct.gov is not intended to be a disciplinary tool.
"It is intended to be a deterrent," McKay wrote. "We fully realized that many complaints we would receive could never be fully corroborated."
Some state workers over the years have expressed concern the website draws taxpayers with an ax to grind, particularly during the ongoing fiscal crisis when members of both parties are calling for less bureaucracy and union concessions.
"She is one of my best employees," a supervisor in the Judicial Branch wrote when a staffer was accused of aggressive driving.
"Due to the weekly attention that the state employees are receiving in the paper due to our pay and benefits, it would not surprise me to see an increase in these 'citizen reports.'"
Staff Writer Brian Lockhart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org