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By Sara Kropf
Time and attendance fraud is the low-hanging fruit for Offices of Inspector General (OIGs) in normal times. But now, with teleworking at an all-time high, we’re going to see a sharp uptick of audits and follow-on investigations into it.
Time and attendance fraud is when a federal employee falsifies work records. It occurs when an employee certifies that she worked 8 hours a day when she only worked 5. Or when she receives overtime pay that wasn’t authorized or completed.
In the DC-area right now, most federal employees are working from home. They are trying to home school kids, work, care for elderly parents who won’t follow self-isolation guidance, plus navigate and worry about a looming recession. There’s a good chance that no one is as productive as they usually are right now. Many of these federal employees don’t usually telework—and thus don’t have the support and systems in place to make it seamless. This creates a perfect storm for time and attendance problems.
Although most time and attendance fraud is fairly minor, it has been taken to extremes.
In our e-book about OIG investigations, we describe the case of John Beale. Mr. Beale was a Senior Policy Adviser at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Following an OIG investigation, he pleaded guilty in September 2013 to theft of government property and sentenced to 32 months in prison. What was his crime? He didn’t show up to work for weeks at a time, telling colleagues that he was an undercover government agent working overseas. He was improperly paid for about 2.5 years (!) of work, plus bonuses for 16 years. This was time and attendance fraud on a grand scale—hundreds of thousands of dollars over two decades.
This is an extreme example, but there’s no doubt that we will see an increase in time and attendance fraud investigations once federal employees head back to work.
How Could OIG Find Out about T&A Fraud?
Most investigations into time and attendance fraud start in one of two ways: (1) someone blows the whistle about a particular employee, or (2) OIG uncovers systematic fraud during a regular audit of timekeeping records and digs deeper.
If you work on a team, and someone thinks you aren’t doing your job while teleworking, then he may call the OIG hotline or send an anonymous complaint to your boss. (I’ve also had clients who were reported by a colleague after a falling out with the colleague, and the complaint was completely baseless—don’t think that an upset colleague will be truthful.)
One OIG report into a USPTO employee explained that
USPTO management’s system of internal controls did not detect Examiner A’s time and attendance abuse; to the contrary, the issues did not come to light until a whistleblower submitted anonymous notes to the examiner’s supervisor and another manager.
OIGs also conduct regular audits and those audits may uncover “outliers” on timekeeping practices or a systemic problem. In those situations, the OIG audit team will turn over the matter to the OIG investigative team for a deeper drive into individual employees.
There are certain “red flags” that could prompt an investigation. The State Department described some indicators of time and attendance fraud
Inaccurate, corrected, or missing timecards; excessive overtime or questioned time, such as splitting overtime between pay periods to avoid biweekly pay limit caps; employees self-certifying timecards.
Keep in mind that agencies have written policies that govern record-keeping. You may not have glanced at it since your first day on the job, but those policies will form the basis of any problem with your records.
How Does an OIG Investigate Time and Attendance Fraud?
Many time and attendance fraud cases arise when an employee fails to come to work at all or leaves early without permission. This is easy to track down since government employees swipe a badge to get into the office. An agent can build a case if your records show you were paid for a 40-hour week, but you never used your badge at the office.
Teleworking removes these “easy” cases. As a result, OIG agents will focus on forensic side. Just because you aren’t physically in the office doesn’t mean you aren’t supposed to be working. As recently as July 2019, the GAO issued a report finding that controls around teleworking need to be vastly improved. The coronavirus pandemic will test any improved controls.
OIG agents have a range of forensic tools to investigate time and attendance fraud. Most often, they compare time records against phone and email records to determine if the employee was actually working.
For example, if your time records show that you recorded 8 hours of work on Tuesday, March 24, 2020, the OIG agent can pull your work phone logs to determine if you made any phone calls. She can review your emails from that day to learn if you were in communication with your colleagues. And, if she’s getting deep in the weeds, she can have the IT department pull the documents on the server that you reviewed or edited that day. That allows the agent to develop a fairly clear view of what you worked on that day.
For employees whose role involves completing specific forms, such as by processing social security claims, then the OIG agent can compare the average number of forms completed by employees in your division against the average number of forms completed by you during a particular week. This is circumstantial evidence at best (maybe you are simply slower than most), but it can still create a big problem for you.
All of these forensic “touches” are time stamped. So, if you sent 20 emails, edited three documents, and had two phone calls between 9 am and 11 am one day, and then the trail goes completely dead, it’s a huge red flag for the agent. What did you do for the other 6 hours that day?
There are also other ways for an OIG to investigate what you did on a certain day, such as social media. If you have your settings public on Facebook and then post pictures from a far-flung vacation, then you better be sure your records show that you took vacation that week. And remember that all of your Facebook “friends” can screenshot your posts. If you are friends with colleagues, they can send private social media posts to an OIG agent to review.
Finally, keep in mind that our phones also track location. One OIG issued a report that an employee was not reporting to work:
[Agency] management conducted a sample analysis using the employee’s issued mobile phone records and compared them with his T&A records and identified where mobile phone calls were either received or made from various locations in Maryland and Virginia. . . . This investigation substantiated that the employee departed Capitol Hill during his tour of duty for hours at a time and in some instances did not return to finish his shift. The employee submitted, or caused submission of, erroneous time logs or other documentation when he certified and signed his WebTA timesheets, claiming his time was recorded accurately.
The employee was fired.
How to Defend Against Time and Attendance Fraud Claims?
Your lawyer can help you put together a defense to this type of investigation. It may include an explanation for what special permissions you had from your supervisor. One can imagine in these difficult weeks that employees will obtain all sorts of special permission from their bosses to handle work on a different schedule.
The defense may include offering new forensic evidence. Maybe you were working on a project on your home laptop and can show the hours you were working there. (Depending on your job, this may be an even bigger problem. Hello, national security concerns.) Maybe you can show there were internet outages, so you were sending emails from your home account on your personal phone.
The key is to develop the explanation for why the records are misleading about what work you were actually doing during that time.
If it makes you feel any better, OIGs themselves have time and attendance problems. In 2015, the EPA OIG issued a report that the EPA OIG was not compliant with time and attendance requirements:
The EPA OIG did not always comply with its policy for using IGEMS as its official internal system for recording time and attendance, including approval for leave and premium pay1 and other compensation. Some employees did not submit or have approved planned or actual timesheets in IGEMS when required under OIG Policy 323, OIG Time and Attendance Reporting Policy.
But even if the OIG isn’t following the rules itself, it will still investigate you.