Orange County has instituted big changes in the way it handles small contracts after an employee whistleblower shed light on shoddy oversight practices. Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs said, even though she was a commissioner when the problems occurred, she had no idea.
"I don't know when we would have discovered this on our own, and that's why, to me, it's so important to empower and protect employees to come forward and talk about things that aren't being done properly," said Jacobs.
After hearing from the whistleblower, the county did an audit and found that, before April of 2012, contracts to do repairs and maintenance on buildings under $100,000 were handled by a single, county-approved vendor under contract.
If, for example, an air conditioner needed to be fixed, the contractor would ask its subcontractor for a price and pass that along to the county. Instead of using a manual designed to determine exactly how much materials and labor should cost the county, the managers would simply approve the bid as presented.
Mayor Jacobs said she does not believe the contractor attempted any kind of fraud.
"I had a couple of major fears at first, that we may have employees that were in collusion, that there might be fraud, or that we had a contractor that was taking us to the bank so to speak. That's not what we found. What we found was people cutting corners. mostly County employees."
Procedures have been changed so that now 16 contractors are on stand-by and approved to do work for Orange County. Jacobs said they now bid out each individual job.
"Each one of you bid it, and the low bid wins. That protects the taxpayers. It also creates a much more transparent process, and it's good for the vendors too because they know that if they're competitive they'll get the work."
The county is not sure how much it has lost because of these policies over the years.
When asked if she thought the county was charged for things that they did not receive, Jacobs replied, "I think it's probably very likely. It's hard to know, because there was no clear accounting for it. It was so easy to disguise how much you were buying and what you were getting."
The audit is over, but Orange County continues to investigate its employees to see if there was any wrongdoing on their part, and whether or not it was intentional. Jacobs said some discipline for employees is likely coming as they continue to figure more out about what went wrong.