ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Catching thieves and exposing incompetence. They’re two big issues most large city governments try to take on in efforts to save taxpayer dollars.
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In Albuquerque, the internal investigative function has been left to two people in the city’s Office of Inspector General for the last three and a half years. The last department head quit in late 2012, claiming the mayor’s administration kept getting in the way.
Today, an outsider, David Harper has taken the reins as the new Inspector General for the city of Albuquerque. He’s now hoping to put more teeth in an office that hasn’t much direction for years.
“I see opportunity here,” said Harper in an interview with KRQE News 13. “We’re going to be looking out for (taxpayers’) interests as number one,” said Harper.
Albuquerque city councilors chose Harper as the city’s new Inspector General in April 2016. He started working in the office in June. His main responsibility is to protect city money by investigating allegations of fraud, waste and abuse inside city government. The watchdog role is one Harper has a background in, with previous work in the Federal Government.
“I spent about 40 years with the Air Force,” said Harper.
Harper just retired from his military career, most recently working in Washington D.C.
“Most of that time in basically white collar crime, economic crime,” said Harper.
Working in the Air Force’s “Office of Special Investigations,” Harper says his work involved investigating cases involving bribes, kickbacks and shady deals between government officials and contractors who were looking for a leg up.
Around 2001, Harper spent about a month living in Albuquerque, helping investigate a fraud case at Kirtland Air Force Base. Harper says fraud is no doubt a problem in the city of Albuquerque, as well.
“I think that any city this size, over half-a-million people, a government that’s one billion dollars almost in its budget, over 6,000 employees, I think it’s naive to think there’s not a lot of fraud going on,” said Harper.
Over the last few years before Harper’s arrival, the Inspector General’s Office has produced several investigations with large financial implications. In 2015, IG investigators found rules were broken in Albuquerque Police’s two million dollar contractual dealing with Taser. Later in the year, the IG’s Office found around $250,000 went missing from Albuquerque’s ABQRide bus system. In May 2015, the IG also found BioPark workers were helping themselves to cash registers for the Botanic Gardens.
“I look at fraud as something that really goes unchecked if nobody’s looking,” said Harper.
Harper says his three main targets are procurement fraud, like dirty city contracts for construction, commodities and services; public integrity, like corruption that comes with conflicts and interest and bribery; and systemic occupational fraud, including city employees who steal or use their jobs for their own benefit.
“The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners issued in a report in 2016, a ‘Report to the Nations’ that said five percent of revenues for any organization probably is lost due to fraud (every year.) If we have a one billion dollar budget, we’re looking at maybe $50 million dollars just in occupational fraud alone, so those have to be our priorities,” said Harper.
However, the IG’s Office has also had its troubles, with past claims that the office is understaffed and their independent power has been undercut by city administrators. Albuquerque’s last Inspector General, Neftali Carrasquillo quit in December 2012.
The work of the IG’s Office is considered to be independent. The IG reports his office’s investigations and findings to a five member, unpaid, volunteer board called the “Accountability Government Oversight Committee.” The board is made up of three people who are appointed by the Albuquerque City Council, and two people who are appointed by the Albuquerque Mayor’s Office.
Albuquerque’s last IG, Neftali Carrasquillo, claimed Albuquerque Mayor Richard J. Berry’s administration was picking and choosing which investigations made it to the IG’s Office, and which went to private detectives, which are hired by the Mayor’s Office.
The practice of the city hiring private investigators continues today. A bulk of the “investigative services” work goes to “Robert Caswell Investigations,” or “RCI.” The Mayor’s Office told KRQE News 13 that it typically presents cases to RCI that need “immediate action,” including cases with allegations of sexual harassment and drug use.
According to the city of Albuquerque’s “ABQ View,” online records portal, checkbook records show the city has paid about $435,000 to RCI since the start of 2015. Between July 2014 and June 2016, the city spent about $488,000 to operate the IG’s Office.
“I believe that we could be more effective,” said Harper.
Harper says ideally, an inspector general’s office should be able to investigate most of the city’s cases and he wants to work toward that.
“I’d like to see this position and this office grow, expand in our capability and our experience, and again, be more responsive in a timely way to the citizens,” said Harper.
However, Harper admits that the IG’s Office can’t get to all the investigations that the city needs done quickly with a staff of three. Harper serves as a the office’s director, while two investigators work with him.
“When you look at the city of New Orleans, when they have 30 people in their office, a comparable city, we are definitely severely understaffed,” said Harper. “But none the less, we’re going to go forward, positive and try to make a difference.”
Harper says he wants to add two more investigators as soon as possible. In the years to come, he says hopes to add a “forensic auditor” with expertise digging into financial crimes and an “inspector,” or a person who could evaluate city departments and programs, and make sure they’re running as efficiently as possible.
Harper says another goal for his office is to take a role in reviewing city ordinances and contractual language before they get signed.
“Look at ordinances, new legislation, opportunities to see any loopholes or unintended consequences that could occur, to help make suggestions, and changes, and tighten those ordinances up,” said Harper. “Also in the procurement process, the pre-award, maybe looking at the language of contracts, making sure that we’re avoiding, again, a missed opportunity, making sure we’re making it more difficult for a contractor to commit fraud against the city.”
While those ideas will take more resources to enact, for now Harper says he wants the office’s presence better known, so that more people can alert investigators about the problems that are out there.
“A lot of people don’t understand what fraud is, and the different types of fraud, so I think a lot of people don’t realize that there could be fraud happening right in front of them,” said Harper.
The new IG says he’s hoping to meet with Albuquerque’s residents through city councilor town halls and open houses, also, through neighborhood association meetings.
“We want the citizen to recognize that and know that we exist, and we’re here to help serve them,” said Harper. “Not only are they our eyes and ears, but also, they’re the victims, they’re the taxpayers.”
Harper says the IG’s Office is currently working on about 12 different cases. If you suspect fraud, waste or abuse in Albuquerque city government, you can contact the Inspector General’s Office at email@example.com, or through their website: https://www.cabq.gov/inspectorgeneral.