Holding government accountable for Tiregate
My first response after I took the time to read the NDI Report in its entirety was anger. I mean, how could so many people have done so much that contributed to the Tiregate embezzlement, and yet no one other than the central figure, Chris Oakden, be considered a candidate to be arrested. According to the state investigation, as hard as it is to believe, no one, not one of the dozens named, had conduct that rose, and I quote, “to the level of a chargeable criminal offense.” So, yes, I was angry.
The state, in essence, had let a lot of folks off the hook. County leaders, both elected and employed, are labeled as being negligent in performing responsibilities to the county, and a “significant number of county employees” are said to have “a persistent attitude of entitlement” which led to the widespread participation in activities from which they should have recoiled. But, according to the state report, nothing criminal would stick, so the result of the report turns out to be a nothingburger.
Really? I say no. I say that can’t be.
So, then, I ponder, if the law cannot or will not hold anyone accountable, what can and should be done?
Anyone who has read the report doesn’t have to get very far in to start realizing the many ways Douglas County, as a government entity, failed to watch out for the citizens, those to whom it is supposed to be beholden. As the report states, “managers and supervisors with responsibility for oversight of personnel and budgets failed to identify significant inconsistencies,” and these failures weren’t one-offs, but went on for years. Among those singled out as falling short are county managers, county attorneys, county financial officers, and county directors of public works.
Just consider how different things would be if in 2012, when a county employee tried to make known that Oakden wasn’t playing by the rules, instead of that employee being condemned as a malcontent and then harassed to the point of leaving her job with the county, she would have been listened to, and the tire thieving had been discovered. The report chronicles this missed opportunity in painful detail. Three-fourths of the money was stolen after this bungled investigation. The embezzler was identified, his methods were noted, and the budget irregularities were ignored.
I find it especially troubling that all of the misjudgments or perhaps deliberate decisions made in the 2012 incident and made by the county manager, the district attorney, the director of public works, and others, came after an even earlier effort in 1999 or 2000 where the purchase of tires for personal use using a county discount had been exposed and dealt with through an investigation.
That investigation also uncovered instances where county employees were using county facilities regarding maintenance of their personal vehicles. So, considering that upper management already knew that purchasing tires and using facilities had been problems, when the human resources manager received a whistleblower complaint and took that complaint to the then-county manager and eventually suggested that an investigation of Oakden be launched, you would think everyone would have been very dedicated to making sure nothing improper was going on.
But no. Instead of getting congratulated for being so vigilant, the human resources manager was, according to her interview, treated harshly to the point she felt her job was in jeopardy. A second county employee, this time a county attorney, described in the report how she was also discouraged from pursuing anything against Oakden, and specifically discouraged by the district attorney about requesting an audit of the public works department.
Tiregate could have and should have been stopped in its tracks in 2012. Imagine. It wasn’t though, thanks to a few key people preventing a real investigation from taking place. So here we are with a $1 million loss that, considering how the county has handled the matter, may, as some residents of the county have asserted, not be recovered.
The buck, however, mostly stops with some folks not even mentioned in the report. Your county commissioners are charged with minding the till and overseeing every function of the county. The report makes clear that many people hired by several past boards of commissioners weren’t doing their jobs properly, but it took an outside state investigation for this travesty to come to light. The residents and taxpayers deserve better.
The immediate past board of commissioners instituted several things in the direction of making sure nothing like Tiregate happens again. The county now has a purchasing person, a new whistleblower process, and a citizen audit committee. Is that enough to restore public trust?
I think not. Public trust is in very short supply these days. Debacles such as the one this county suffered in Tiregate only reinforce and validate the public’s already skeptical regard concerning government straightforwardness. On top of that, Nevada has a history of being a “good ’ol boy’ kind of place.
The fact that the Tiregate embezzlement was kept secret from the public for so long, no matter why; the fact that Oakden was merely put on leave and not arrested, no matter why; the fact that rumors were rampant that the sheriff’s department, and the sheriff himself, was somehow involved with Oakden’s malfeasance, whether true or not; the fact that the report took nearly two years to be completed, and the fact that the internal county investigation of Tiregate was overseen by someone who, according to the state report, may have played a major role in poor decisions made in the past concerning Oakden, all chip away at an already thin façade.
Add to that the fact that every management-level person portrayed in the report was remiss in performing his or her job has paid no price whatsoever for what they did, with several of them being celebrated in their retirements and showered with accolades, and you can fully understand just why so many residents and taxpayers are thinking they are being treated dismissively. They want the justice they not only feel hasn’t been delivered, but also appears to be being blockaded by the very people near the top who deserve to suffer.
So what more can we commissioners do to fix what is broken?
There is no doubt that we are facing some big challenges. One would be the “attitude of entitlement” identified in the state report. In 1999, in between the scandals of “Sodgate” and “Tiregate,” the former district attorney made a concerted effort to encourage county employees to not cross the line regarding misuse of county assets and using county time for personal purposes. But after he retired, that message evidently wore off to the degree that the state investigator came to the conclusion that in Tiregate “many employees … willingly engaged in prohibited activities.”
The county needs to review its rules of conduct regarding employees, and the employees at all levels need to be made aware of what the rules are and what the consequences for breaking the rules will be.
I would submit, however, that there also needs to be changes made specifically in management. The report indicates that punishments for violations were ineffective or considered to be mere slaps on the wrist. The report also notes a distinct discrepancy between how an employee actually performed his or her job and how that performance might be documented in the employee’s file. Managers need to require accountability, and they need to be both accurate and fair in their performance assessments. Discipline needs to be restored between the employees and county management as the first step in generating a new attitude wherein county employees take pride in their integrity as they provide valuable services to the residents and taxpayers of the county.
I think another avenue worth pursuing in the hopes of rebuilding public trust would be for a citizen’s committee, perhaps the audit committee, to conduct an investigation and report at a future public meeting, where named employees are properly notified in advance, how county management bungled, overlooked, or aided in the repeated instances of thievery and abuse in the public works department. Such a report would make it clear employee and management abuses of self-serving employment will not be tolerated.
I’m of the mind that Tiregate calls for significant change, and I pledge to keep working as hard as I can to restore honesty throughout Douglas County government.
Dave Nelson represents District 1 on the Douglas County Board of Commissioners.