ALBUQUERQUE – A lack of internal controls and oversight in the Doña Ana County Sheriff’s Office allowed several officers to alter their hours and claim more than $130,000 in overtime pay from federal funds that were intended for fighting crime along the U.S.-Mexico border, according to a state audit.
The audit released Monday covers a two-year period starting in 2012 and suggests four sheriff’s officials adjusted their normal work schedules to participate in projects that earned them $61,400 the first year and $71,000 the second in combined overtime compensation. The amounts were more than three times what the officers’ hourly wage colleagues made in overtime under the federal Operation Stonegarden grant program, according to the audit.
New Mexico Auditor Tim Keller said the apparent overtime inflations amounted to “bad practice” and raised concerns about how federal grant dollars are used in the state.
However, no department or grant policies were violated, because former Sheriff Todd Garrison signed a 2009 memo allowing lieutenant, captains and majors to approve their own overtime for special projects.
“The use of public funds along our border should be transparent and accounted for no differently than all other tax dollars that are spent in our state,” Keller said in a statement.
Garrison could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.
Operation Stonegarden was launched by the Department of Homeland Security almost a decade ago to strengthen state, federal and tribal law-enforcement efforts along U.S. borders. With its seat in Las Cruces, Doña Ana County is the state’s second-most populous county and shares borders with Texas and Mexico.
Sheriff Enrique Vigil, who took office in Doña Ana County earlier this year, requested the audit after questions surfaced regarding the money. The independent firm Kubiak Melton & Associates was tasked with completing the audit and released findings to state and sheriff’s officials last week.
“What they found was a situation really ripe for abuse, although what was occurring was consistent with the sheriff’s policy at that time,” said Sunalei Stewart, the auditor’s chief of staff. “Basically, captains were allowed to change their own schedules without anyone else’s approval. So, what you could do is work four 10 hour shifts and they would do that on overtime.”
The audit said managers could claim overtime without tracking and recording their time, and the lack of internal controls meant the officers could submit false overtime claims to the federal government for reimbursement – though there were no findings that happened, Stewart said.