Payment scams, employee thefts and a fire that destroyed a Department of Conservation and Recreation building contributed to more than half a million dollars' worth of property losses at state agencies in the last two years.
Under Massachusetts law, government workers must immediately notify the state auditor if taxpayer-owned property goes missing, whether it was misplaced, stolen or destroyed.
The so-called Chapter 647 reports (which take their name from the state's internal control law, Chapter 647 of the Acts of 1989) offer a rare glimpse into events that go largely unknown outside the halls of government.
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The narratives attached to each report reveal stories that range from the ordinary, such as overages in the cash drawer at the county registry of deeds, to the uncommon — like the tale of a Berkshire Community College professor accused of manipulating enrollment in his class.
The internal control law is designed to help the auditor pinpoint weaknesses in how state government tracks its assets. It also requires departments to develop strategies to mitigate their risk for fraud, waste and abuse.
Records reviewed by the NBC10 Boston Investigators show public entities in Massachusetts logged more than $554,000 in lost, stolen or destroyed property during the two-year period from July 2017 through July 2019.
Below is a look at some of the noteworthy, unusual or expensive losses.
Tablets Go Missing at Middlesex Community College
Middlesex Community College piloted a program during the 2017-2018 school year to equip students with tablet computers for an English composition course. But at the end of the semester, 101 of the 700 tablets weren't returned, for an estimated loss of $60,000.
The school has since recouped at least $47,000 by billing students who chose to keep their iPads, according to spokesman Patrick Cook. Others have holds on their accounts and won't be allowed to register for classes until the college gets its money back, Cook said.
"They pay it back as part of their bill," he said.
Losses at state colleges and universities are among the most common reported to the auditor's office. As the NBC10 Boston Investigators found, Massachusetts schools logged more than $130,000 in combined missing gear in two years.
With campuses that are often open to the public, schools face a more significant challenge than other state agencies locking down their inventory, state Auditor Suzanne Bump said. Nevertheless, many haven't taken important steps to cut down their risks, such as adding barcodes and location trackers to pricey computers and laptops, Bump said.
Scammers Steal Paychecks From State Employees
Workplaces across the country have been targeted by scammers who impersonate employees to steal their paychecks and benefits. State agencies are no exception; at least six fell victim in the last two years.
The most significant loss came at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, where someone managed to steal paychecks worth a combined $23,500 by impersonating a school official.
The school's human resources department received emails purporting to be from an employee requesting that his paycheck be directed to another bank account. UMass discovered in December 2018 that the request was fraudulent, but by then, two checks had been cut. One contained 1.5 years of retroactive pay, boosting the total loss.
UMass has since recovered $775. The school now requires employees to use a password-protected website and confirm their identity using a second device, such as a cell phone or tablet, before they can change their payroll information, according to a spokesman.
Similar schemes were carried out last fall at Westfield State University, where someone hacked into an employee's email account and diverted a paycheck for a little more than $1,100; and at Cape Cod Community College, where checks totaling about $3,816 were stolen from two employees.
Beyond the education system, scammers also targeted the Massachusetts Teachers' Retirement System, intercepting more than $3,800 intended for a retiree, and the Board of Bar Examiners, which reported an $8,237 loss after someone stole money owed to a vendor by steering it to a fraudulent account.
Someone impersonating a vendor also stole $3,840 from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation after asking another state agency to change payment information, according to reports filed with the auditor.
Berkshire Community College Professor Juices Enrollment in His Class
A professor at Berkshire Community College found a novel way to augment his salary, according to officials at the school.
In 2018 and 2019, the professor encouraged multiple students to enroll in his classes, then skip the lectures and withdraw from the class. The professor assured the students they wouldn't be charged tuition as long as they dropped his course, according to the school's filing with the state auditor.
After investigating, the school concluded the professor wanted to make sure his classes weren't canceled for low enrollment.
"Had he not solicited students to enroll in and then to withdraw from these courses, BCC would have cancelled them or offered them on an under-enrolled basis, at reduced compensation," the school's report reads.
The college pegged its loss at $15,870.
Responding to questions from NBC10 Boston, the school's associate director of marketing, Jonah Sykes, wrote in an email that the college "cannot discuss specific personnel matters." He added that the professor no longer works at the college.
Groundskeeper Steals $47K From UMass Lowell
An audit of gas card usage among UMass Lowell employees eventually led investigators to uncover more than $47,000 worth of improper credit card charges by the school's former grounds operations manager.
The employee pleaded guilty in January 2018 to purchasing weed whackers, leaf blowers and other lawn care items with a university credit card, then reselling them on Craigslist and pocketing the money, The Sun of Lowell reported. He agreed to repay the full amount that was stolen as restitution and avoided jail time in exchange, according to the newspaper.
Vehicle Equipment Stolen From Westborough Lot
Three light bars bolted onto trucks parked at the former Westborough State Hospital property disappeared in January, prompting an investigation that briefly centered around two state employees, according to police reports.
The lights, valued at $4,000, were attached to a pair of Ford F250s used by the Department of Conservation and Recreation for plowing and another truck used by the Department of Environmental Protection.
After the thefts, a private security guard told Westborough police he was suspicious of two employees of the Department of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, since he had spotted the men looking at equipment and vehicles on the lot, which is used by the state's Office of Vehicle Management. The guard also said he believed one of the two was starting a landscaping company, according to a police report.
Police in another community surveilled the home of one of the men for about two weeks, but didn't spot the missing lights. Westborough police concluded they didn't have probable cause to search his home.
Shelving Disappears From Downtown Boston Building
Interns moving boxes into the former gun range inside the Charles F. Hurley Building at 19 Staniford St. in downtown Boston made a surprising discovery in 2017.
After loading 50 or more boxes into the old gun range in July of that year, interns for the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance returned in August to find the shelves were gone and the boxes had been left on the ground.
DCAMM, which purchased the shelves several years earlier, pegged the estimated loss at $12,368.
The gun range was located on the first floor of the building's parking garage. Security cameras inside were pointed at vehicles and parking spots, and didn't capture any evidence of who stole the shelves, according to DCAMM's report.
State officials said doors to the former gun range were still locked and secured when they examined them, and there was no evidence they'd been tampered with.
Five Trucks Destroyed in DCR Building Fire
A building in New Salem used by the Department of Conservation and Recreation burned to the ground on April 5, 2018, destroying gear inside and five DCR vehicles valued at a combined $50,000.
Investigators eyed a wood stove as the cause of the fire, though they couldn't rule out the possibility that it was sparked by the electrical system or an oil furnace. A storm knocked out power to the building, and employees fired up the wood stove to heat the building, according to an investigator's report. Employees remembered the fire was almost out when they left for the evening. A passing motorist spotted the blaze around 9:15 p.m. the same night.
Department of Fire Services Reports $48K of Missing Equipment
The Department of Fire Services was unable to locate 21 items during an inventory last year, including 14 radios, two protective suits, two GPS devices, a compressed air bottle, an air pack and a 16-channel data recorder.
While the items, valued at $48,000, were reported missing to the auditor, a spokeswoman said the department later tracked down some of the gear, including the protective suits, one GPS and the compressed air bottle and air pack.
"Some of the equipment is used on HazMat and incident support vehicles that are located around the state and respond to emergencies statewide," the spokeswoman, Jennifer Mieth, wrote in an email. "That makes it a little harder to keep track of everything and is why we sometimes find items when we keep looking."
Ten radios and the data recorder were still missing, though Mieth said they were outdated and likely removed as surplus property, but not removed from the inventory.
"The second GPS we are still looking for and hope and expect to locate eventually," she wrote.
UMass Boston Employee Charges $25K to School Credit Card
The University of Massachusetts at Boston uncovered an estimated $25,000 in fraudulent credit card charges on Oct. 3, 2018, and managed to recover $1,500, according to a report filed with the auditor.
In an email, DeWayne Lehman, director of communications for the school, wrote that the school's investigation sprang from an "unaccounted variance" that was discovered during a campus audit.
"The audit revealed that an employee had inappropriately charged personal items to a university account," Lehman wrote. "The incident was resolved internally and the employee made restitution and was terminated."
UMass Dartmouth Employees Resign Over Fraud Allegations
Administrators at The University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth accused an employee of cashing in $15,004 worth of fraudulent pay by filing false time reports between September 2017 and August 2018.
In a report filed with the state auditor, the school said the employee and his supervisors were terminated, and that it planned to recover the money over a period of three years under a repayment agreement with the employee.
However, documents obtained by NBC10 Boston show the employees were allowed to resign rather than being fired after the time card fraud allegations surfaced. The school signed secret settlements with the three employees, under which UMass agreed not to discuss what happened.
The school also agreed to provide the employees a neutral job reference if a prospective employer contacts the school in the future to discuss their work history. UMass is allowed to disclose only the dates they were employed by the school, their positions and their pay rates.
In exchange, the employees agreed not to file grievances against the university through their unions, or to accuse UMass of violating its collective bargaining agreements with them.
The documents, obtained by NBC10 Boston through a public records request, show one employee agreed to pay restitution of $8,067.10 after acknowledging that he had "misappropriated funds belonging to the University." The money was due to be paid in monthly installments of $224.09, beginning April 2019 and ending March 2022.
A spokesman for the university declined to answer questions from NBC10 Boston about what happened, saying the school "does not discuss individual personnel issues."
"The University has rigorous systems in place to prevent, deter, and identify fraud, and is proactive in reporting such instances to the Board of Trustees and State Auditor," the school said in a statement.