A city transportation manager forged documents to give $22,000 to his friends and family — instead of the motorists who were owed the cash after the city auctioned their cars.
The theft, revealed this week in an inspector general's annual report, is the latest case of misconduct in Baltimore's scandal-plagued towing industry.
Babatunde Yussuf, the city's deputy chief of towing operations, pleaded guilty to theft after an investigation last year and was ordered to repay $22,507 to the city, according to Inspector General Robert H. Pearre Jr.
"Towing is an industry where people have a lot of opportunities to take advantage," said City Councilman Robert Curran, a watchdog on towing issues.
Three years ago, a federal investigation into a towing kickback scheme ensnared dozens of police officers. The officers illegally referred the owners of broken-down and damaged vehicles to a Rosedale body shop in exchange for cash. Sixteen were convicted and others suspended as a result of the probe.
In the auction scheme, Yussuf altered vehicle owner information for impounded vehicles sold by the city. Under city rules, if vehicles fetch a higher price at auction than the fees and expenses owed to the city, the money is supposed to be refunded to the vehicle's title owner.
Yussuf changed city documents to indicate that his friends and family owned seven different vehicles, and he tried to obtain refunds totaling more than $32,000, the inspector general found. The inspector general's investigators were able to stop two of the disbursements of about $10,000, the report said.
Yussuf could not be reached for comment.
His case was one of several investigations into the misuse of city funds revealed in the report.
In another a case involving the city's transportation department, an unnamed office supervisor worked compensatory time, as approved by her supervisor, and then submitted the hours as paid overtime. The ruse resulted in a loss to the city of $13,726, according to the inspector general.
As a result, the manager was fired. The state's attorney's office declined to prosecute the case, but the city's law department is considering a civil lawsuit to recover the funds, according to the report.
Neither Yussuf nor the manager was named in the report, which contained few details. Pearre provided Yussuf's name in an interview. He said investigative reports on both cases would be available "very soon."
Under the previous inspector general, summaries of investigative reports were posted online as the cases were concluded.
Curran and Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Maryland, said both cases should have been disclosed earlier.
"If they are reports on public officials and public money, then the public has a right to know," Bevan-Dangel said. "The more transparency, the better."
Pearre, who started work last year, said more information wasn't disclosed earlier in part because he was focused on staffing the office and tackling a backlog of cases. He had one agent on his team when he took the job; now there are five. He also said he has to wait on prosecutors to make their case before he can release information.
Pearre added that his team is making progress on investigations of the Mayor's Office of Information Technology, whose director resigned in June amid allegations that the department paid contractual employees for work they may not have performed, and of the city's speed cameras, some of which were troubled with high error rates.
"We had huge backlog of several hundred cases," Pearre said. "We've rebuilt the office into a productive unit. We are now firing on all eight cylinders."
Pearre's report also highlights an investigation of a city accountant accused of fraudulently issuing $73,227 in benefits checks. The accountant, Denita Hill, 25, resigned from city government and was indicted by a federal grand jury.
Hill and alleged co-conspirator Robert Johnson, 32, of Perry Hall were charged with conspiracy, wire fraud and identity theft. While Pearre's report includes few details of the case, federal prosecutors issued a news release about the indictments in May.
According to the U.S. attorney's office, Hill was responsible for issuing checks for unused sick and vacation days owed to Baltimore employees who left their jobs.
She requested that checks for large lump sum payments be reissued, as if they had not been received, prosecutors said, and the duplicate checks bore a forged endorsement, "Pay to the Order of Robert Johnson." He then deposited the funds into his bank account, prosecutors said.
Neither Hill nor Johnson, both of whom pleaded not guitly, could be reached for comment.
The inspector general's report noted that the office recovered much less money through its investigations last year than in previous fiscal years — $65,000 compared with $538,000 in 2012.
Pearre said that's because his office is conducting "complex multi-year cases" that will be reach fruition in the future.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she didn't know enough details to comment on whether information should have been released earlier, but she commended Pearre's work.
"A lot of the work they do doesn't involve the recovery of funds at all, but it's very useful work," Rawlings-Blake said. "I'm interested in having an inspector general who operates independently. I think we have that. He doesn't have a revenue goal. He has a performance goal of consistently and transparently rooting out corruption, misconduct, fraud and abuse in city government."
Twitter.com/lukebroadwaterCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun