County receives Tiregate report
Douglas County will be mulling its legal options regarding a 99-page report prepared by the Nevada Division of Investigation on the Tiregate thefts that came to light over the weekend.
District Attorney Mark Jackson said Monday he will be meeting with county commissioners individually and will ask that an item be placed on commissioners’ March 7 agenda on the report.
The Attorney General’s Office issued a letter declining to prosecute anyone in connection with the thefts, blaming Vehicle Maintenance Director Chris Oakden for the entire $1 million theft.
The Record-Courier received a copy of the Dec. 21, 2018, letter on Jan. 24 and made a public records request for the full report on Jan. 25. Douglas County issued a press release on Feb. 1 regarding the letter.
State detectives interviewed nearly 60 subjects about the thefts, which took place over several years, and were only uncovered when Oakden took a three-week cruise in March 2017.
The following month, after being fired by the county, Oakden veered into the path of an oncoming semi-truck on Highway 395 in the Pine Nuts and was killed instantly, leaving family, friends and co-workers to deal with theft of $1 million in tires, according to the report.
According to the state, Oakden used his position to defraud the county and spent the money to finance a lifestyle that included daily gambling, annual cruises and weekend getaways at local casinos.
‘A Nice Guy’
State detectives found that Oakden was generally well liked by managers, supervisors and co-workers, who generally described him as “a nice guy,” a hard worker and a good boss.
However, they concluded that their information suggests that “in reality he was a masterful manipulator and liar, who time and time again, successfully convinced Douglas County managers and supervisors that he was a dedicated and loyal employee.”
Investigators found that a sense of entitlement on the part of Douglas County employees contributed to the thefts and that Oakden exploited that for his own gain.
“While the individual failures (to intervene and take corrective action) certainly constitute negligence in fulfilling responsibilities to the county, the conduct does not rise to the level of a chargeable criminal offense,” investigators concluded about behavior of county employees.
Oakden and his wife went on cruises every year starting in 2013. She told investigators she thought the money came from Oakden’s gambling winnings.
She said that Oakden paid all the bills and did all the banking.
“She claimed she never questioned Chris about anything,” investigators said.
She told investigators she thought Oakden killed himself.
“Deep down, I think he did this on purpose,” she said. “But why would he leave us like that? What would make him think this is going to fix everything when it’s not?”
Oakden rented a shop at 1567 Zerolene Place in Minden where he did some of his work on county employees’ vehicles, including that of former Sheriff Ron Pierini.
By the time investigators searched the shop it had been cleared out.
His stepson told investigators that Oakden talked about selling tires and working on other people’s vehicles.
How did it work?
The owner of Reno Vulcanizing, where Oakden made many of his purchases, said the tractor-trailer tires Oakden favored had to be ordered ahead of time. He said that Oakden picked up tires a couple of times a month and would pick them up with a trailer.
He said Oakden explained the purchases, saying he was buying for smaller governmental agencies under the Douglas contract.
The Reno Vulcanizing sales representative who worked with Oakden said he was purchasing hundreds of semi-truck tires and at one point asked about it. Oakden blamed the floods for the increased purchases. He would pick up 8-16 truck tires at a time, sometimes as often as twice a week, in his personal vehicle, sometimes making two trips in a day.
Investigators interviewed Oakden’s Sacramento buyer Vasile Carpa, who said he met Oakden after responding to an online classified advertisement.
Carpa said Oakden claimed to own a tire store in Reno. Over three years Carpa would purchase tires from Oakden 100-150 times, the last time on March 28, 2017. The 22.5-inch semi-truck tires were sold by Oakden for $250 cash, or half their regular price. An estimated 400 tires that didn’t fit any county vehicle were purchased by Oakden on the county’s account.
A deputy told investigators he’d purchased tires from Oakden two years before the investigation for $600. He said he was told he was getting a “flat rate” on the tires and that Oakden never said where the tires came from.
“Oakden was a likeable guy that was very down to earth and did not seem like the type of guy to steal,” the deputy said.
He said Oakden told him to keep the tire sales quiet.
Pierini said that he received mechanical services on his personal vehicles from Oakden, but that he’d never purchased tires. He said he would drop off the vehicle at Oakden’s home and would purchase any needed parts himself.
County worker discount
The seeds for Tiregate appear to have been sewn before Oakden was put in charge of the motor pool in 2008.
At that time, the county purchased its tires from a Sacramento firm that offered county employees a discount on tires.
The employee would pick up the tires at the county yard and hand the driver a check at the discounted rate made out to the company.
Former Road Superintendent Brett Reed, who retired in 2008, told detectives that District Attorney Scott Doyle investigated the practice and found that while it was not illegal, it could be perceived negatively by the public. Doyle recommended future deliveries be made away from county facilities, which essentially ended the practice because the driver didn’t want to bring tires to various locations.
Reed recounted how around 1999-2000 the District Attorney’s Office told them to quit working on vehicles after hours at the county shop.
One of the places where Oakden could have been stopped was a whistleblower complaint received by a county employee that Oakden was using his position as county vehicle maintenance supervisor to buy and sell tires to other county employees.
Former Human Resources Director Darcy Worms told investigators that then-county manager Steve Mokrohisky claimed she was on a “witch hunt” to get Oakden and threatened to discipline her and a fellow employee in 2012.
A written warning issued to Oakden was done without involving Worms or her deputy, and was written by Mokrohisky. She resigned a short time later, saying the whole situation didn’t sit well with her.
Ballooning Tire budget
Public Works Director Carl Ruschmeyer told investigators that he was aware of concerns about the county’s tire budget, which had nearly tripled over the course of three years.
He said the county’s accountants asked why the tire budget was ballooning, starting around 2016 and involving only fleet services.
Ruschmeyer said Oakden told him “the cost of tires and supplies were steadily going up and that specialty tires were needed.”
He told investigators that there were “no controls” on the fleet services budget.
One accountant who came to work for the county during the time of the thefts described the finance department as a “train wreck.”
“They struggled to get a yearly tire inventory from Oakden and were constantly emailing him asking for the inventory,” she told investigators. When she received the inventory “it was a jumbled print-out … that made no sense.”
Former Chief Financial Officer Vicki Moore told investigators that she was told that Oakden was the only person who entered tire data into the inventory system, which the financial division didn’t use.
She said she recalled that the budget for tires was $125,000, an increase over the prior year, and that Oakden exceeded that amount.
Moore said that due to demands placed by the budgeting process she was never able to conduct an intended audit, and told Oakden to do the inventory and audit himself. According to investigators, the tire budget had increased by $350,000 over two years.
She told investigators that she was bothered people thought she was responsible for the thefts.
Former Chief Financial Officer Christine Vuletich said cutbacks in staffing left the county with no purchasing department or purchasing controls that may have helped mitigate the tire thefts. What checks and balances existed failed, she told investigators.
State investigators contacted Oakden, who said he wanted to talk about the allegations against him and agreed to meet with them on April 17.
Oakden failed to show up. Investigators received a call from a nurse who said Oakden had been hospitalized with a heart-related issue. Investigators and Oakden set a new appointment for 9 a.m. April 24. At about 8:45 a.m. that day, investigators were notified that Oakden was killed in a head-on collision with a tractor-trailer truck while on his way to the interview.
Now that the report has been completed and released, the $1.024 million insurance claim the county filed can be paid.
Jackson wouldn’t speculate on what the insurance company would do to recoup its losses. It’s typical in a theft claim for the insurer to try to recoup its losses from the perpetrator or his estate.