Montgomery County councilman Roger Berliner listens to an answer from county inspector general Tom Dagley during a hearing on the county's tuition assitance program for employees.
By Matt Bush
Blame is being placed all around for the suspension of Montgomery County's Tuition Assistance Program for employees after reports of fraud.
The program was suspended last year. At a county council hearing, acting county attorney Marc Hansen said in one instance, employees, mostly from the sheriff's and police departments, took a class with county money that allowed them to purchase discounted firearms for personal use.
"Either a pistol at $99, which had a retail value of around $500," says Hansen. "That's a pretty deep discount. Or a rifle which had a value of $715, and they were given an opportunity to purchase that for $350."
In another example, a firefighter took a gardening class. Joe Adler, director of the county's office of human resources, blamed the program's broad criteria for the misuse.
"The criteria was large enough that almost any course that had any bearing could be met," he says. "And if we denied it, employees could have used a grievance process because it met the criteria. The criteria said you could take any course that relates to any job in the county."
The heads of unions that represent county workers pounced on Adler's comment. Marc Zifcak, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police lodge, got up from the audience to address council members.
"Now, if I apply for a medical benefit that I'm not entitled to, I get denied," he says. "If I apply for a loan that I'm not entitled to, I get denied. If I apply for a tuition benefit I'm not entitled to, that should be denied. It wasn't. It was mismanaged."
County executive Isiah Leggett eliminated the program in his budget plan for next fiscal year, but not because of fraud allegations: he says the county doesn't have the money to fund it.