State Program Spending Money on Itself, Instead of Its Clients

KIRO TV Team 7 Investigation


Tuesday at 5:00: It's a tiny piece of plastic buried inside a popular home appliance. It's worth pennies, but it could cost you THOUSANDS! The manufacturers know about the defect. So why aren't they telling you about it?

Chris Halsne
A state program aimed at helping disabled citizens keep a job is coming under fire for spending money on itself instead of clients.

KIRO Team 7 Investigative Reporter Chris Halsne finds some questionable transactions at the Washington Division of Vocational Rehabilitation.

The DSHS program has long been in financial trouble. Last year, the agency laid off employees and had a 6,000-person waiting list for its services.

So why then did KIRO Team 7 Investigators find managers getting expensive new cars and fancy computers?

"They're thinking like a for-profit group, and they're not!" says Howard Aller.

Aller is no fan of the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. A master chef by trade, he waited more than a year for DVR services. When the state finally agreed help retrain him as a paralegal, DVR forgot to pay the school tuition and he was dropped from his classes.

"It has been the most horrendous postal kind of thing, a government bureaucracy at its worst!"

A KIRO Team 7 Investigation into some recent purchases by DVR doesn't make Aller any happier.

This year, DVR ordered 278 new top-of-the-Line Dell laptop computers for staff, one for nearly every employee of that state agency. Total cost: $755,000.

By contrast, this year DVR bought just $31,000 worth of laptops for its disabled clients.

That's out of balance and out of touch, according to the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a conservative tax watchdog group.

"We're not in the high times of the 90's here, no surpluses coming our way. We're in budget crisis, a recession. We need to be frugal, helping people who need help," says Jason Mercier, a budget analyst.

We also discovered that DVR bought new SUVs for its managers, 2002 Chevy Blazer LS's to be exact. That cost taxpayers another $263,000.

Then, there is the planned staff retreat this December at Skamania Lodge. Budget for the event is around $100,000, including the hiring of a nationally known comedian to entertain.

"I've evaluated it as an important event. something that will make a difference to the staff," says DVR Director Mike O'Brien.

O'Brien says the three-day resort retreat, computers and new SUVs are all essential investments that will help disabled clients.

"I don't think they could have been put off until times are better, when a division is struggling like ours has done. Now, now is the time to make those changes."

O'Brien's proponents say his fresh perspective has helped reduce the waiting list for client services recently. Now, O'Brien has to convince guys like Howard Aller that mobile, well-equipped DVR case-workers are not going to be a waste of money.

"Why do I have to keep going to an office? Why don't they come to me? I'm disabled, you know."

We did some checking and found the Washington Department of Social and Health Services funds DVR in large part with federal matching funds.

Critics say tax money is tax money. Now is not the time to make expensive purchases. Legislators are facing a $2 billion budget shortfall this coming session.


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