Caltrans accused of waste, sloth

 caltrans photo

March 18, 2010


“Caltrans is a good organization with lots of good policies and procedures,” Manas Thananant told me. “The problem is that no one reads them.”

Thananant knows what he’s talking about. Recently retired from the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), where he’d worked since 1980, Thananant has spent the last two years trying to get someone to address the laziness and incompetence he said was rampant in his office.

A native of Thailand, Thananant came to the U.S. in 1970. His job at retirement was senior transportation engineer, and he holds a masters degree in engineering.

“I liked the work that I did, and always did my best,” Thananant, a resident of Folsom, said. “There are lots of good, hardworking employees there. But I was told, ‘This is none of your business.’ It was!”

Thananant began working at Caltrans in August 1980. But by early 2007, while working in the Office of Pavement Design (OPD), Thananant was increasingly concerned about the waste and fraud he felt his colleagues were committing. Specifically, Thananant says he saw his colleagues conducting personal business or sleeping in their offices, or simply not showing up for work at all. He calculated that the other half dozen or so Senior Engineers in his office were working, on average, a mere “24 hours a week.”

For a little over a year, from Mar. 14, 2007 to July 31, 2008, Thananant kept a meticulous diary of his colleagues’ comings and goings in the office. He cross-referenced his diary with the weekly calendars all transportation engineers were to keep showing where they were going to be each day, in case one or more of their colleagues needed to contact them. And he kept every memo he received that concerned Caltrans work policies.

“Work week schedules are typically 40 hours a week,” read one memo, sent out to members of the OPD on Nov. 17, 2006. “Senior [Transportation Engineers] are considered salaried employees meaning they do not need to charge time off for portions of days missed. However, this does not mean that Seniors should be working consistently less than 40 hours a week.”

The memo also explicitly banned the practice of telecommuting. “No one in the office is approved to telecommute or work from home,” stated the memo. “Everyone should be at their desk during their scheduled work time… If working from home is approved, it will be temporary and limited to the need.”

When he was done, Thananant had compiled a stack of documents roughly an inch thick. Then he started writing complaints. And he didn’t mince words, either.

“There are several STEs [Senior Transportation Engineers] in the OPD who show up 24 hours but charge 40 hours of time worked per week, even though it is against written Caltrans Directives, Policies, and Procedures,” Thananant wrote on Sept. 29, 2009 to Assemblyman Roger Niello, R-Sacramento, and Senator Dave Cox, R-Fair Oaks. “When they arrive to work, they either spend an excessive amount of time on their personal cell phones or simply fall asleep at their desks during business hours. One STE even personally refinanced a home mortgage while another attended a graduation ceremony on State time. The same STE who did the refinance also manipulated time and calendar, on several occasions, so that he could have consecutive Fridays off (double dipping) when he was not supposed to. These practices by Caltrans STEs in the OPD have cost taxpayers at least $500,000.00.”

Thananant complained to his supervisor and to the Caltrans director. He wrote letters to the state Bureau of Audits and Caltrans’ own office of Audits and Investigations. He sent copies of his complaint to the state Business, Transportation and Housing Agency and the California Transportation Commission. He even complained to the Federal Highway Administration and his local state representatives.

“It is my responsibility and duty as a Professional Engineer to report these fraudulent and wasteful practices,” Thananant wrote in the above letter. “These practices and actions by these individuals, whose salaries are paid for by State and Federal funds, must not be tolerated nor allowed to go on without some action being taken. Taxpayers should not be burdened with these abusive practices especially in this time of economic crises the State of California and the United States of America are facing. I urge you both to take appropriate action against those who have committed, condoned, and tolerated these practices. Taxpayers deserve much better results for their tax dollars.”

And then Thananant heard… nothing. Well, that’s not entirely true: In response to his Dec. 11, 2007 complaint, the Bureau of State Audits wrote Thananant a brief letter a week later, acknowledging receipt of his complaint.

“We are processing your complaint under Section 8547 of the California Government Code, the California Whistleblower Protection Act,” Russ Hayden, the auditor’s manager of investigations, wrote on Dec. 17, 2007. “However, it is important for you to know that it is not possible for this office to act as an advocate for individuals in their disputes with state departments or employees. In addition, by law we must conduct our investigations confidentially. As a result of the law, we cannot keep you informed about the progress or results of our review.”

That was more than two years ago. Thananant says he never heard back the auditor’s office. Since state agencies will not comment on “personnel matters” like these, it was impossible for CalWatchdog to determine what, if anything, any agency has done with Thananant’s myriad complaints. OK, that’s not entirely true, either: through the California Public Records Act, we were able to confirm that all the engineers Thananant criticized in his complaints are still working for Caltrans.

For its part, Caltrans refused to comment on Thananant’s complaint, though a spokesman did insist that the department is taking the matter seriously.

“In November 2007, Mr. Thananant filed a retaliation and race based complaint in which he alleged differential treatment, retaliation and harassment against his then supervisor and other senior staff,” Caltrans spokesman Matt Rocco e-mailed on Mar. 17. “The complaint was investigated by the State Personnel Board and the allegations of discrimination were not substantiated. The case was closed in July 2008. A subsequent investigation on an additional complaint by Mr. Thananant is currently being conducted by Caltrans and is not yet final. By law, details of personnel-related investigations are confidential.”

Given the fact that Thananant first began complaining to his superiors more than two years ago, Caltrans must be conducting a very thorough investigation indeed. But it’s also fascinating that Rocco said the department is still looking into Thananant’s complaint because a recent report on Caltrans’ Capital Outlay Support (COS) program – the development and management of $10 billion in state highway projects – by the state Legislative Analyst’s Office makes a compelling case that Thananant’s experiences merely scratched the surface of Caltrans’ productivity troubles.

“The cumulative evidence from our review shows that the program is overstaffed and lacks strong management,” stated the March 2, 2010 LAO report. “[B]ased on the information provided in the work plan, it is impossible to determine whether the requested funding and staffing levels provide what the department actually needs to deliver transportation projects.” In fact, the LAO found that the department may be overstaffed “by as much as 15 percent.”

For its part, Caltrans insists that it’s not overstaffed. But Thananant wasn’t surprised by the LAO report.

“It confirms what I have said,” he told CalWatchdog. “Longtime Caltrans employees know that a 25 percent cut is still OK.”

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