Auditor's Office Proves Yet Again How Easy Stealing Taxpayer Money Can Be

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In this week's cover story on Seattle Public Utilities' "Joe Millionaire," Rick Anderson showed us how astoundingly simple stealing money from the government can be. As if to prove the point, the Washington State Auditor's Office yesterday came out with two more reports on alleged fraud.

All you have to do, apparently, is work for a taxpayer-supported institution and generate bills for goods and services never supplied--or at least never supplied to the intended beneficiaries. Voila! Money and a whole lot of other things--car repair services, tickets to Vegas, gas, meals out, massages--are yours for the taking.

This is demonstrated most aptly by a case involving the city of Seattle, specifically its Human Services Department, which contracts with a non-profit called Senior Services to provide assistance to grandparents and other relatives caring for children.

According to the auditor's office, Senior Services' former "kinship coordinator" Gregory Townsend submitted invoices for a variety of things that never went to caretakers at all, but to himself, friends and relatives. The King County Prosecutor's office has already charged Townsend with theft in connection with this alleged deception. Charging papers say Townsend, as well as alleged cohort Arthur Wheeler, stole roughly $90,000 by creating a fictitious moving and hauling company that provided imaginary services to nonexistent clients.

But that's not all, says the new auditor's office report. It found nearly $140,000 of additional funds that were either swindled or constituted "questionable expenditures." Those include approximately $17,000 paid for repairs to Townsend's own car, $3,000 in car payments that again benefited Townsend directly and $15,000 that was supposed to be rental assistance for caretakers but in reality went to Townsend's friends. (In one case, the listed caretaker was someone who had been in prison for the last 14 years.)

The questionable pay outs also included $3,600 in meals, $587 in massages and a $167 airplane ticket so that someone with the same last name as Townsend (the report doesn't specify who) could accompany him on a business trip to Las Vegas.

The auditor's office forwarded the new information to the King County Prosecutor's office, whose spokesperson Dan Donohoe says he does not yet know if new charges will result.

Meanwhile, the state's productive auditors documented yet another case of alleged fraud, this one at Harborview Medical Center. At the public hospital's burn unit, according to the their report, a recreational therapist misappropriated almost $18,000 by submitting receipts for DVD players the employee had bought, ostensibly for patients to use during the stay.

Funny thing was, 96 of the purchased 152 DVD players couldn't actually be found in the burn unit, apparently because the therapist had returned the equipment and pocketed the funds. (Quick tip for would-be fraudsters: If you doctor the duplicate receipts you get when returning items, you can pretend you made new purchases and get paid twice.)

Donohoe says no charges have yet been filed against the therapist.

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