Local News

DMV disciplines 14 in gifts probe

Posted July 23, 2010 11:15 a.m. EDT
Updated July 23, 2010 7:22 p.m. EDT

— The state Division of Motor Vehicles suspended or disciplined 14 people following an internal investigation into gifts provided by a vendor, officials announced Friday.

Verizon Business officials said last fall that 62 state workers and family members received Carolina Hurricanes hockey tickets, restaurant meals, spa services and other benefits from Verizon employees from August 2006 to January 2009.

Verizon has a $48 million computing contract with the DMV for the agency's vehicle inspections and emissions program.

DMV Commissioner Mike Robertson said Friday that an internal investigation determined that Verizon managers paid for 57 dinners attended by DMV managers and others and that the company's representatives also provided snacks and lunches for 23 working meetings.

The investigation found that Verizon workers falsified some expenditures – wrongly implicating some state employees – by adding the names of DMV workers who were in training or on vacation to dinners they attended.

Still, Robertson said 20 employees did cross the line and improperly accepted gifts.

"The actions and the activities of a very few coupled with the false accusations have dishonored the division," he said.

Two DMV managers were suspended for five days without pay, and 12 other agency workers were disciplined in some other way. Six employees under investigation have since retired, 12 others were exonerated and the allegations against 10 more were unsubstantiated.

The others implicated by Verizon were family members or other state workers.

Verizon last fall fired four employees and disciplined a fifth for violating the company's code of business conduct.

The investigative report, which was released Friday, names three supervisors who had direct authority over the Verizon contract – John Robinson, Brian Bozard and Debbie Brewer – and notes that they have been named persons of interest in a State Bureau of Investigation probe.

All three have since retired. None could be reached for comment Friday.

"The situation developed where our employees were too close to their employees," Robertson said. "We've taken steps to be sure that will never happen again at the DMV."

The SBI, which is looking into whether state employees broke the law by accepting the gifts, is expected to turn the findings of its probe over to Wake County prosecutors soon. State ethics rules prohibit employees from receiving gifts from vendors.

"It creates a perception among North Carolinians that state employees can be bought." said Jane Pinsky, director of the North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform.

Robertson defended his decision not to fire any of the employees, saying he and other officials tried to match the punishment to the level of misconduct.

"We very closely and judiciously weighed the positions. We weighed what the employee did, and we made what I think is a very sound decision based on the evidence that we had," he said.

Because of the episode, DMV workers now "know when to say no" and are keenly aware of ethics regulations, he said.

Pinsky said she believes that exposure, disciplinary action and recent ethics legislation send a cautionary message.

"It's a real turning point," she said.

Verizon's contract, which was awarded without competitive bidding, expires in 2012. Robertson said the next contract will be opened up to other bidders.