Between July 2016 and June 2018, thousands of dollars in state funding went to “potentially unnecessary” overtime payments to the Massachusetts Environmental Police force, according to an audit from State Auditor Suzanne Bump that alleges “lax practices” and “poor record keeping” by the force.
According to Bump's report, released Wednesday, the department may have improperly paid out overtime to officers on 327 separate times during the audit review period.
The agency enforces boating, hunting, fishing, hunting and recreational vehicle laws, and has been the target of intense scrutiny since issues with management, payroll and incorrect documentation in the agency came to light in 2016.
“The purpose of this audit was to determine whether those conditions that led to overtime abuse were still in existence after they had been brought to people's attention in 2016,” Auditor Suzanne Bump said in an interview with WGBH News Wednesday. “The Baker administration had pledged to eliminate some of these conditions, but we found that they still exist.”
In the report and her interview, Bump focused mainly on the unusual practice of ‘split shifts,’ which allow officers to split their working days into segments, taking overtime assignments and off-duty details between other regular shifts.
The report found that officers worked 1,834 split shifts in which they earned overtime, but did not receive properly documented approval to do so.
The report showed that unapproved overtime payments to 65 officers totaled “as much as” $42,623 in state funding, but does not go so far as to say that all of the payments amounted to fraud — only that they could be, as they were not properly approved or documented. "
“They weren't documenting the approvals, so when you look at all of the cases where time had not been approved, that would be the dollar value of it,” Bump said. “Now, it could be that some of the overtime was approved, and they just never kept a record of it. But that's the amount of unapproved debts, the amount of overtime for which there was no approval documented.”
“They have a culture that is not very attentive to record keeping,” Bump continued, “or to accountability and transparency.”
A spokesperson for Attorney General Maura Healey said her office will be looking into the report.
Environmental Police spokesperson Katie Gronendyke says before the audit was conducted, the agency made improvements to their operations, including changes to the split-shift policy. The agency disagreed with the methodology of the report, claiming the auditors “misinterpreted” data, and said they will continue to “look into” the report.
“Before this audit was conducted, MEP made improvements to the agency’s operations, including changes to the split shift policy,” Gronendyke said. “The MEP approves and pays overtime in full compliance with the collective bargaining agreement and the governing law… there are times that the audit team misinterprets the governing agreements and the audit methodology used does not correspond to the legal requirements for paying overtime.”
The agency says in 2016, the force implemented a policy to reduce the amount of split shifts to 15% of all overtime shifts, while still defending split shifts as a way for the small police force to perform “critical” duties.
The audit looked at 2016-2018, when former Environmental Police Colonel Environmental Police Colonel James McGinn oversaw the department. McGinn was fired in February of 2019, after media coverage exposed the split-shift practice being abused by officers on the force in 2016, and an internal review that year led to discipline for some officers and a promise from the agency to stop the practice.
Still, under the new leadership of Colonel Shaun Santos, who was appointed in February of this year, the practice continues.
Bump said reducing the practice isn’t enough to ensure that overtime fraud isn’t taking place in the agency — split shifts must be forbidden completely.
“There has been a grudging, I would say, curtailment of shift-splitting, but they certainly haven't eliminated the practice,” Bump said, “which is unique among law enforcement agencies in the state because of the potential that it gives to poor policing and overtime abuse.”