County employees accused of theft of public funds

July 7, 2009

By KAREN VELIE

County officials continue to threaten whistleblowers while the state has mounted an investigation into the theft of county resources by at least two employees, according to inside county sources.

Public works employees, who claim they are tired of threats of retaliation by their supervisors, have provided details to CalCoastNews of how Road Maintenance and Operations Manager Randy Ghezzi and Road Maintenance Supervisor Max Keller have used public funds for personal gain.

Sources outline a long list of alleged misappropriations such as supervisors instructing county employees to do carpentry work at the Ghezzi and Keller homes while on the county clock. County employees also describe Keller and Ghezzi commandeering county equipment such as welders, mowers, backhoes, trucks, and trailers for personal gain.

The county provides Ghezzi and Keller with trucks to be used for off hour emergencies. The vehicles are equipped with removable tanks the pair fill with county gas to fuel equipment such as mowers that may be needed for weekend and evening road incidents. However, employees claim the pair primarily use the tanks to pilfer gasoline.

In addition, officials allegedly handed Keller’s stepson the county mowing contract. According to sources, he uses county mowers to run his lawn maintenance business.

A few weeks ago, Public Works Director Paavo Ogren placed Ghezzi and Keller on paid administrative leave while the county opened an investigation into allegations of fraud prompted by a whistleblower.

In early June, public works employees arrived at work to find members of county counsel, the county personnel department, and union representatives waiting to question them regarding the whistleblower’s allegations. Interoffice mail informed employees the state had also mounted an investigation, according to inside sources.

Officials from the California Attorney General’s Office refused to deny or confirm reports of a state investigation. County Counsel Warren Jensen said in an e-mail, “county attorneys are unaware of a state investigation.”

Responding to questions regarding the alleged theft, Ghezzi threatened to go after employees who divulged he is on paid administrative leave.

“You can’t write this, it’s not public information,” Ghezzi said. “If I find out who told you, I’m going after them.”

During a staff meeting that occurred shortly after officials announced the investigation, Keller allegedly made threats of retaliation to both the whistleblower as well as any employees who fail to heed the unofficial gag order, sources said.

“Max said any of you who say stuff after hours will catch hell,” said an employee who has asked to remain unnamed.

In addition, Keller, Ghezzi, and county tree crew employee and Vice President of the San Luis Obispo County Employee Association Dan Qualey have vented their displeasure with alleged informants and the “wrath” they plan to inflict on those that divulge details of the investigation, employees said.

Qualey is reported to have asked union members to help him uncover the whistleblower’s identity.

“Why would he go to the union and raise a ruckus?” an employee asked. “He should understand.”

Qualey did not return requests for comment. A union receptionist hung up on a reporter when asked for information.

According to a county employee, on the same day Qualey was attempting to out the whistleblower, drivers delivered two truckloads of county equipment and Keller’s county truck to county yards.

County sources, afraid of retaliation, have asked to remain unnamed.

According to the State Attorney General’s website, personal use of government vehicles is a violation of codes regarding the misuse of public funds.

“Violations of the laws prohibiting misuse of public funds may subject the violator to criminal and civil sanctions,” the website says. “These penalties may include imprisonment for up to four years and a bar from holding office.”

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One Comment

  1. ccn_debate says:

    Member Opinions:
    By: goldmoranth on 7/18/09
    Maybe people just think Ghezzi owns a backhoe because the county one was always at his house.

    By: SillyPerfections on 7/13/09
    I don’t know who your “informant” is but they have this ALL backwards. For one, I have seen the entire report an these two guys and it is obvious that whomever lodged these complaints is going to get fired. For one, they alleged that Randy Ghezzi took a county work truck all the way to Idaho and built a road on a ranch he doesn’t own in ONE WEEKEND. Not only is it physically impossible, but its absolutely ridiculous. Wish you had called me instead Karen. I bet this ends in one ugly lawsuit that leaves the County cowering in a corner. The whole thing was a complete waste of our taxpayers money. I think the people who allowed these complaints to be investigated should have to pay the cost of the investigation personally. Oh and Karen, go back to college and learn how to be a real reporter for Pete’s sake woman, you can’t even get your FACT’S STRAIGHT!

    By: rukidding on 7/12/09
    If you think this may be bad maybe someone ought to check out Cal Poly professors. How much of our tax time do you think they spend on their personal projects? Like using their campus offices, state owned computers, internet service and the use of their staff. Abuse is everywhere. What have you taken from work?

    By: BeenThereDoneThat on 7/9/09
    Well put It never ends.

    These things take time. We all just have to be patient.

    By: itneverends on 7/9/09
    Re: Gail Wilcox’ status, I see that her job status is on the B/S July 14 closed session agenda, as is her claim against the County. The Board always takes a 2-3 week hiatus at the end of June, early July after the budget hearings. They are just coming back from their annual break and will now deal with their investigator’s report at their first meeting back.

    Regarding Ghezzi, Keller, Qualey:none of us know what that investigative report commissioned by the Human Resources Deppartment contains. The reporter of this site apparently received input from some one (or more) with allegations. It will be interesting to see what the investigator has been able to verify.

    Unlike the Wilcox situation, these guys are under Civil Service, and have the right to appeal any dicipline that they may receive first, to the Human Resources Director then, second, to the Civil Service Commission. In order to prepare for this, the County will have to have a solid, documented case with complainants who will testify under oath.

    By: Clemintine on 7/9/09

    Joe writes:

    “Sucks when something like this gets out of hand. Using “company” equipment on off time used to not be a problem as long as you were careful and respectful.”

    It doesn’t matter how careful or respectful you are Joe. If an accident does happen, it poses tremendous liability for the County which translates to the taxpayers.

    Let me give you a simple illustration.

    Lets say a supervisor authorizes an employee to borrow a chainsaw so that the employee can help a neighbor cut down some trees.

    While cutting the trees the chainsaw malfunctions due to a maintenance issue. The chain is thrown from the saw and the neighbor is injured.

    In this senario the County now owns the neighbors injury.

    See my point?

    By: Truthbeknown on 7/9/09
    I find the reference to Qualey interesting in this updated story:

    “In addition, Keller, Ghezzi, and county tree crew employee and Vice President of the San Luis Obispo County Employee Association Dan Qualey have vented their displeasure with alleged informants and the “wrath” they plan to inflict on those that divulge details of the investigation, employees said.

    Qualey is reported to have asked union members to help him uncover the whistleblower’s identity.”

    I also find it interesting that Ghezzi is a former President of SLOCEA. Perhaps Qualey is just protecting his buddy?

    By: Joe on 7/9/09
    Sucks when something like this gets out of hand. Using “company” equipment on off time used to not be a problem as long as you were careful and respectful. Then liability came into play and it got more difficult. Then, people do stuff like this that makes it so you can’t even spend your lunch time working on a “home” project. But I guess they have plenty of time AT HOME to do that now.. Kinda like an extra long paid lunch huh? and they didn’t have to see Dr.Summeroff. I decided I don’t want a job anymore. Just hire me and put me on paid administrative leave OK?

    By: karen on 7/9/09
    I will be on the Dave Congalton Show at 4:45 to discuss this issue. Turn your radio to 920 KVEC or listen live at 920kvec.com.

    By: Myself on 7/9/09
    The issue at hand is misapropreation of taxpayer equipment and tools, weather he has time or not to build spec houses is not the issue unless equipment or funds were used to do such, both of them own backhoes and other equipment, so taxpayer equipment does not belong parked at their places, unless for saftey over a weekend when county work is being done close by, this is a practice that has gone on for years to park a grader/loader/mower at a ranchers yard off of the road for safety. Now a new issue seems to pop up that no one here seems to be concerned about is the behavior toward other employees, this is not called for, but for Ghezzi and Keller this is understandable as they think they are special, Dan Qualey on the other hand I thought knew better than to do something like this.

    By: BeenThereDoneThat on 7/9/09
    P.S. Things aren’t always black and white. Life is complicated in the gray area to be fair to all.

    By: BeenThereDoneThat on 7/9/09
    Cindy

    I like you am pissed that we get nothing productive from an employee at home on paid leave.

    Again devils advocate though, I can see the problem in the case of the truck usage. If they might have done it you have to pull them off the job so they don’t keep doing it. Also so that other employees don’t claim favoritism.

    It is not a perfect system but to protect the individual, the employer etc. I can’t see how you can do anything (action) without at the end of the day having to pay in some form, be it now (paid leave) or later (lawsuits. I just don’t think there is any other way around it.

    I would love anyone to give a better way. I am open for it but I for the life of me can’t think of a way within the law that you can.

    Think about it. If someone at your work tomorrow accused you of stealing and you didn’t do it, how would it affect you if you had no pay? What would you do if you eventually where found innocent? Say no problem keep my pay you didn’t pay me??
    I would guess you would sue.

    Don’t get me wrong that I like this. I am just making the arguement of how this could play out.

    By: Cindy on 7/9/09
    BTDT
    Allow me to quote myself, “I can understand this tactic for a few days but it goes on for weeks and even months.”

    I should think that any public employee on paid administrative leave would be a priority.
    They either have culpability or they don’t. If the offense is initially unclear then let them continue “earning” their pay with strict temporary guidelines in place.

    While I’m at it, why isn’t Gail Wilcox back at work? Edge has been removed. I’m certain one reason is because she has created litigation which is now a conflict of interest. Why would a public employee who has willfully created a conflict of interest against the public (even after her complaint has been resolved) continue to collect a free ride on the public dole? This is disgraceful.

    By: BeenThereDoneThat on 7/9/09
    Cindy.

    I agree with the paying people while on leave but let me play devil’s advocate here.

    I could see a reason for doing this. Charges are brought against someone. With that old adage we are using alot, “innocent till proven guilty”, what would you do at the end of the day if people in these kinds of situtions are found innocent?

    Now you have taken the pay of an innocent person. You could have caused them financial hardship in the meantime. Then I could see where you have left yourself open to lawsuits, because you docked the pay of an innocent man, and caused hardship.

    So my guess is that we probably pay, (as insulting as it may be) because it is probably the cheaper alternative in case of innonence.

    By: BeenThereDoneThat on 7/9/09
    Wow Roger.

    We celebrated the fourth because of whistle blowers?? I thought it was because a bunch of people didn’t want to be taxed and ran by a tyranical goverment?? Don’t even think they used the term then (could only find origins to 1863) or understood it, but back to subject at hand so I don’t digress.

    You also missed the sarcasim in my point on proff.

    You also missed the point that I said the origanal article I don’t dispute.

    What the question I asked, is about the point of the equipment now being brought up in this article as being used at home. The original article was a county truck being used for hauling wood east of town. No problem. My point again with this article is the additional information of using equipment at home in this article.

    Again I can’t comment on Keller. My point is Ghezzi has these items at home. Why would you borrow at home?? If used somewhere else (as stated with truck) then fine say that in the article and I probably wouldn’t ask the question.

    I am commenting and asking the question as the article is written.

    Everybody is so anxious for the tar and feather party, that they don’t even want to look at the points the story mentioned.

    I am a big believer in law and if found guilty then give them the appropriate punishment. I don’t have a problem investigating this.

    As with anything you investigate you ask questions as to the how and why. So that is what I am asking is why borrow?? You usually borrow something you don’t own or have. He has this(equipment). I haven’t heard a rebuttel to that specific question.

    By: Cindy on 7/9/09
    Newsome,
    X2@U. I’m also waiting for the “meat and potatoes” regarding Ian Parkinson and the VeAhavta issue. I suspect that its going to come down to a lot more than we’ve heard. Now that we’ve all been assured that the funds are sent directly to the orphanage (and not placed in the trusted care of a possible “fake priest with a phony doctorate”) there will be no excuses when its determined what it really cost to run a facility such as the one described on the VeAhavata web site.
    As for this story, I do know that Karen doesn’t just write stories without compelling evidence and solid documents. I also know that the credibility of her sources is always an utmost consideration. It isn’t that easy to send her a tip and get her to write about it. She once said that 95% of her tips go in the trash. I trust what I read on CCN. I’ve seen her break stories months in advance of anyone else being able to verify the facts. It pays to protect reliable sources anonymity.

    By: Cindy on 7/9/09
    Hotdog, Newsome, HonestyPlanet, BTDT, RogerF

    You all make excellent points. I agree that innocent until proven guilty. The problem is getting someone to act upon these allegations and investigate. Honesty said it all perfectly, including “Let’s put someone on administrative leave shall we…..pay them their regular salary while they don’t work…..that’ll teach em’!!!” I can understand this tactic for a few days but it goes on for weeks and even months. The people need to send the BOS a reminder of who the boss is. This won’t get cleaned up until we demand excellence from those who represent us and draw their salaries from our collective checking accounts. I’m still waiting to see what will be done about the 136 public vehicles afforded these servants.
    Where is the accountability? Some heads truly need to roll.

    By: rogerfreberg on 7/9/09

    okay folks, the real issue here is the continual cover-up of this and that happening in our local institutions.

    It is darkly amusing that some folks want ‘proof’ or ‘all the facts’ before a rush to judgment. The key is that there are serious issues being raised here and they should be investigated… and action taken.

    As for whistle blowers… we celebrated a few of them not long ago… it was called the 4th of July.

    Roger Freberg

    By: BeenThereDoneThat on 7/9/09
    Hotdog

    I agree that CCN has a good track record. I do like their reporting. I do have to take you to task though on this line.

    “Lacking any data to the contrary (data, folks; not hysterical partisanship) I will always put my faith in the reporting on this site.”

    You say you want data? O.k. so where is the data on this about these guys? Have you seen it? Oh thats right some one told you in an article so we can’t question or raise points without data?? Have you talked to the whistle blowers? Do we know they exist?

    Yes my point is over the top. Yes CCN innocent till proven guilty. How about the same for these guys??

    Not saying we shouldn’t debate or that they aren’t guilty but ease up on the hyperbole that yours might be the only way.

    By: hotdog on 7/9/09
    Newsome, I would never ask someone to exercise blind faith in anything. I never heard of many of these issues until reading about them here. All I was pointing out was that so far CCN has a very good record of accuracy so those who get their dander up whenever an awkward article comes out don’t have much credibility. In fact, some of them seem to be liars or lunatics with nothing better to do than spout off vitriol.
    I think we will see more about the Parkinson deal, including his brother’s run for top cop.
    Unfortunately our county seems so dysfunctional that even after exposing the graft, theft, illegal and immoral activities of various officials and citizens often nothing is done by those charged with enforcing the law. So, despite all the work of this site sometimes we don’t hear too much later on, bummer. I wonder what happened to the Police Chief dancing on the bar at some dive in north county, the cop who crashed 4 cars one clear morning (and his buddies failed to even write a report though what they finally said about it defies physics and common sense), I wonder if there is an active investigation into the theft of county equipment (by us, the state-who) and why the county counsel seems to be in the dark about that.
    Whenever this sort of denial comes up I recall a young rent-a-cop finding a piece of tape over a door latch at the Watergate Hotel, more or less 35 years ago. His diligence, and that of reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, with the full support of their editor Ben Bradlee, brought down a crooked President. But it took years amidst endless whining by the right wing and naysayers about these ‘false accusations’. Yet, in the end, the truth finally won. And of course then we had a Congress with a spine-even the honest conservatives (now there’s an oxymoron these days) there told old Dick he was toast.
    So now we have whistleblowers, with supposedly nothing to gain, pointing out some very interesting issues. I honor them; they should be carried around on our shoulders for telling the truth. Instead, in this nutty society, they are hounded and often fired. Some are killed (Karen Silkwood). We should make it a crime to harass them in any sense. If they lie then can be busted for filing false charges.

    By: HonestyPlanet on 7/9/09
    Wall street bankers take millions in bonuses while their companies hemmorage losses. County managerial employees display the same lack of ethics…..who cares about the County’s financial crisis, let me use my influence while I profit as I can. Wake up, it’s not unusual, this is the status quo, and why we’re in the economic crisis we’re now experiencing. Private enterprise and governmental parties who have absolutely no ethics whatsoever. How much can I make, and how soon, is the marching mantra. Ethics have become a historical footnote. Is it thanks to the ACLU, or the Civil Service Commission? Is it a product of a President who “never had sex with that girl”. Who knows? It’s bad, it’s everywhere, and no one’s dealing with it. Let’s put someone on administrative leave shall we…..pay them their regular salary while they don’t work…..that’ll teach em’!!!

    By: Newsome on 7/8/09
    Hotdog:

    I intrinsically trust Karen’s reporting, much as you do.

    That said, she needs to hit me with the meat-and-potatoes part of why she went after Eric Parkinson if she wants me to continue my blind(ish) faith in her reportage.

    (I had never heard of Parkinson before the CCN story, and I only barely know Ghezzi. I do not have an interest in either situation, other than their drama value.)

    By: hotdog on 7/8/09
    Sure are a lot of apologists for these folks. Stealing our resources and threatening those who have the courage to expose the truth-these are not attributes I admire.

    Sure, we don’t have proof yet. So what? I urge the skeptics to review every CCN article written over the last 20 months-I cannot recall a single issue that was ultimately proven wrong. I do recall a lot of shouting, whining, denying and lying to denigrate this site-all have fallen into the dustbin of dysfunctional history.

    Lacking any data to the contrary (data, folks; not hysterical partisanship) I will always put my faith in the reporting on this site.

    Our county seems to be literally crawling with crooks, liars and other undesirables. I thank the great spirit CCN continues to expose them.

    By: Cindy on 7/8/09
    To John Galt,

    No one said that there is anything wrong with building a spec house outside of ones public work duties or that it wasn’t possible to do both. However – If you will notice,co-workers have reported that Randy has utilized public paid employees on public paid time to perform carpentry at his private residence. With that said I think the question on how he finds time to build two spec homes a year is reasonable.

    By: JorgeEstrada on 7/8/09
    Yes I do agree, 100%. The culture of Govt just does not meet our expectations partly because we have allowed the path of least resistance to be the deciding choice thence we have Govt generating their own selfserving rules.

    We have all heard the term enable. I think you can agree that WE are to blame for allot of what goes on while some find escape goats to justify the process.

    The fix is work not funding, so if a penalty were to evolve in this case I’d support a promotion to a training assignment instead of loosing a resorce.

    Training the remaining super honest employees to be achievers too may be the needed change in culture.

    By: Clemintine on 7/8/09
    Jorge: You wrote:

    “You have to understand the culture and how money flows”

    What the heck do you mean? Culture?

    Is this some type of defense for someone who misappropriates govt property or resources, which ultimately belong to the community of taxpayers who support the governments function.

    Anyone engaged in misappropriation, whether on the top or bottom of the work chain, deserves to be disciplined. I will accept the arguement that those at the top have greater responsibility, since they generally design the rules and are supposed to set the example.

    Please tell me you don’t disagree!

    By: JorgeEstrada on 7/8/09
    Oh my darlin Cemintine you arent lost and not forever but I do understand what theft is.
    Now if you think our tax dollars are always appropriated correctly, you win. If you have any doubt you have got to go to the top. You have to understand the culture and how money flows.
    Squelching people who are do’ers that may be misguided does not solve the real problem, if there is one.
    I am not a friend nor pal of these people, just have the experience to know that most Americans are FAT and LAZY per another new media. With that I choose to defend the working class, hope for better government as in public safety and services.
    If you see rain, look into the sky for an accurate account. The puddles are after the fact.

    By: BeenThereDoneThat on 7/8/09
    In responce to John Galt’s comment:

    “Wow-why in the world would any of you find building a spec house in your spare time wrong?”

    Because John liberals have taught us class envy for the last 25 years. ;-)

    Not saying this lets a person off the hook if they have done something wrong but you are right that we all begin to hate (or suspect)when the Johnson’s next door have more than I.

    By: Black_Copter_Pilot on 7/8/09
    I think JohnGalt may have something here!

    By: JohnGalt on 7/8/09
    Wow-why in the world would any of you find building a spec house in your spare time wrong? Who cares if Ghezzi is a full-time employee of the county? Does that preclude him from making other investments, ie: building a spec house? He probably subbed out certain portions of the construction to others, such as pouring the foundation, installing plumbing and electrical, even the framing and roofing, and in doing so, helped the local economy. I cannot believe some of the comments found here…who the heck are you to decide what others do in their spare time??? Geez…what a sick society we are becoming. (PS for those with your panties in a bunch after reading my statement here, I am ONLY commenting that ALL of us has the right to do what we want in our spare time…I have not commented on the unproven accusations. Remember the “innocent until proven guilty” idea???)

    By: BeenThereDoneThat on 7/8/09
    Getting back to my original point. It stated in article that employees said they are taking home county equipment.

    Again with the equipment mentioned and you own same (Randy), why borrow?? (I.e. backhoe, mower, welder)

    As to the original article a few weeks ago, yes that is to be seen about the truck in that instance. I am commenting on this article only.

    By: Clemintine on 7/8/09
    Jorge: I think you have missed the point when you wrote “Even if there was a mis-appropriation, at least something productive happened.”

    Misappropriation of govt property and resources is flat out improper and can have enormous consequences to the taxpayer.

    The issues reported here are very disturbing. If true then the employee or employees who blew the whistle should be commended.

    With all the controversy surrounding our past County Administrator and Asst Administrator it sounds like they were to busy with other behaviors, rather than properly focusing on the administration of our County and thus we may have slipped into serious disfunction.

    I hope our Board of Supervisors take the bull by the horns and get to the bottom of these allegations for I fear there is some truth to them. At this point openess is essential and don’t be afraid to take the course of “heads will roll” if it is appropriate.

    From what I have seen of past CCN articles the reporter’s track record is pretty good

    By: Cindy on 7/8/09

    What I find curious is how did Randy build a couple of speck houses each year when he had a full time position with the county? Weekends and vacations? Sounds like a bit of a stretch. I do know that CCN doesn’t just print stories without proof. They probably have copies of e-mails sent to staff by management and copies of complaints. The fact that they don’t print sources is understandable. Without sources this information would never reach the public and the GOB network would continue as it always has.

    Looks like there is still a cover up going on regarding the LEO that was found in Templeton, unable to drive home late at night and in a county owned vehicle not for the less.

    By: Bluebird on 7/8/09
    A lot of the poster’s comments reflect
    seriously flawed ethics. Stealing is stealing whether its a million or a hundred dollars.
    If Ghezzi has time to build speck houses he isn’t devoting the time he should be to his job. This type of employee is ripping of the taxpayers. Shame on the union rep for intimidating his employees.

    By: BeenThereDoneThat on 7/8/09
    Cindy.

    I don’t know for an absolute (haven’t seen the pink slip) but I do believe his as always there for over a year.

    He mentioned he had bought it.

    If county’s I would think it would only stay at his place for short time.

    Also like I mentioned the other equipment.

    He use to build a couple speck houses a year, so he had bought equipment for that use.

    Last before all the “you are only defending him because he is a friend”, arguements come in from anyone, he is an acquaintance.
    Don’t know him in the sence I would call a friend.

    Personnelly haven’t spoken to in a long while. Just putting this information into the mix of discussion.

    By: starvingmexican on 7/8/09
    How can you print allegations with no proof?Sounds like a witch hunt to me.Can’t we all just get along?

    By: Cindy on 7/8/09
    To BeenThere,
    Are you certain that he owned the equipment that you speak of, or is it possible that you just believe he owned it? I’ve known people to pretend to own things like company cars etc in the past. Just asking.

    By: BeenThereDoneThat on 7/8/09
    I can’t say about Keller but the one thing I find strange about the article is the use of a backhoe. Randy Ghezzi has owned his own for at least three years. Why would he borrow one???

    Also owns quite a bit of other equipment that he uses around his house. So again why risk borrowing when you already have???

    By: JorgeEstrada on 7/7/09
    I can only go by what is read but still I do not read enough to tar and feather anyone. Even if there was a mis-appropriation, atleast something productive happened. We are talking about working stiffs that use tools and may whoop off some hundreds of dollars in essentially ojt. Hundreds of thousands in studies that produce nothing is the real problem, now that’s a fish I’d rather catch. I speaking to admin fat.

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