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.”