News Archive 1

DFYS Cleared in Report
of Harm Complaint

The Division of Family and Youth Services (DFYS) did not mishandle investigation into reports of harm involving a Southcentral Alaska child, the Ombudsman found after investigation of the issue. 
The complaint was filed by relatives of the child who contended that DFYS did not adequately investigate allegations that the parent neglected and sexually abused the child. The relatives further charged that DFYS did not terminate the parental rights of the child's parent as it should have. The relatives also said that if DFYS had terminated the parents rights, the relatives would not have had to spend so much of their resources on attorneys and therapists to protect the child. 

The relatives told the Ombudsman that they wanted DFYS to terminate the parental rights. The relatives remain convinced that DFYS was wrong in refusing to do so. The relatives contended that if DFYS had terminated the parental rights, the child would be less vulnerable to the parent seeking to visit with and regain custody of the child. No visits between the two have been held in two years. 
Many of the issues the relatives complained about were approved by court order, which places them outside of Ombudsman jurisdiction. The Ombudsman discontinued investigation into the issues of visitation between parent and child and termination of parental rights because the court ruled on these issues. 

The Ombudsman found that over several years, DFYS properly responded to and investigated several complaints of harm involving the child. The Ombudsman investigation found that while DFYS established that the parent's substance abuse was creating a danger for the child, there was no clear and convincing evidence that the parent had sexually abused the child. Further, despite several extensive police interviews of the child, the child never confirmed that the parent or anyone else had sexually abused him or that he ever witnessed any inappropriate sexual activity. 
The child is living with relatives pursuant to a civil court order.

Executive summary of the investigative report

Juneau Tax Penalty
Oversteps State Law

A Juneau businesswoman contacted the ombudsman to complain about the City and Borough of Juneau (CBJ) assessor's office. According to the woman, she neglected to file a timely declaration of business property for her small business. Although her tax obligation was only $0.37, CBJ charged her a $25 penalty for missing the deadline. 

The ombudsman found that CBJ had made a good faith effort to notify business people of the filing deadline. Further, the CBJ municipal code requires a $25 base penalty for those failing to file on time. However, a review of the authorizing state statute showed that CBJ lacked authority to charge a penalty exceeding 20 percent of the taxes due. In this case, that would have been seven cents. 
The ombudsman found the businesswoman's complaint justified, and CBJ agreed. CBJ also accepted three ombudsman recommendations: (1) rescind the $25 penalty and related charges, (2) propose amendments to the municipal code to bring it in line with state statute, and (3) consider a policy suspending enforcement on very small debts. 

Full text of the investigative report

Child Support Credit
Reporting Flawed

A non-custodial parent contacted the Ombudsman in 1997 complaining that the Child Support Enforcement Division (CSED) had wrongly reported him as a debtor to consumer reporting agencies, such as credit bureaus and lending institutions, and refused to correct the inaccurate report. Federal and state rules require that CSED report child support debtors to consumer reporting agencies if the debtors fall more than $1,000 behind. The rules, however, require CSED to give notice of its intent to report so that the parent has opportunity to correct inaccurate information.
 
The central allegation against CSED was that it failed to give the man notice that he was about to be reported. The agency countered that it had given the man notice six years before, the last time he had fallen more than $1,000 in arrears. The Ombudsman found that a six-year-old notice for essentially a different debt was unreasonable and contrary to state and federal rules. CSED disagreed with the finding, even though its own attorney advised that notice needed to be given more often than it had in this case. CSED agreed, however, to change its policies and provide notice at least yearly to parents who have a new debt of $1,000 or more. 

The Ombudsman also found that CSED was inefficient for reporting the debt when the agency itself believed the man owed nothing. CSED reported him while waiting for its own accounting section to enter credits in its computer files eliminating his arrearage. CSED disagreed with this finding as well, saying that it should not have issued the credits in the first place. 

The Ombudsman found not supported a third allegation, that CSED unreasonably refused to correct the erroneous credit report. 

Full text of the investigative report

Student Challenges
UAS Grading Standards

In May 1996 a student at the University of Alaska Southeast (UAS) complained to the ombudsman that UAS faculty and administrators unfairly refused to admit him to the Bachelor of Liberal Arts (BLA) program at the Juneau campus and caused him unnecessary additional expense. The ombudsman found the student's complaint partially justified.
 
 The student transferred to the Juneau campus after completing 89 credit hours at the UAS Sitka campus with a grade point average of 3.14. Although he had completed the English composition sequence, English 111 and English 211, in which he received grades of A and B+, he failed the Writing Proficiency Review at the Juneau campus. Passing this review is a requirement for admission to the BLA program and thus for graduation. The student submitted a second set of writing assignments a few months later and failed again. 

 The student said these evaluations were unfair. He showed that four of the papers included in his second submission received grades of A and B from other Juneau instructors. He said the UAS faculty recommendation that he take English 110, "Basic Writing," was unreasonable and called into question the integrity of the university's system of course numbering, because English 110 is prerequisite for placement in English 111. 

 Responding to this recommendation that he take "Basic Writing" in what he considered his senior year, the student wrote, "I cannot use lower division credit[s] nor afford them, but I am being asked to pay for remedial classes to learn what I should have already been taught in the previous five English courses, three of which were upper-division." The student pointed to statements in the university's Academic Catalog advertising UAS as an integrated system of higher education, then pointed to his own experience as evidence that, in fact, writing instruction and evaluation of student writing at UAS are quite inconsistent.

 The ombudsman found that while the English composition courses are prerequisite for admission to the BLA program, students must still demonstrate proficiency in writing to gain admission. This requirement is dictated by accreditation standards, is advertised in the catalog, and applies to all BLA applicants. Students whose writing is rated "No Pass," "Conditional Pass," or "Pass with Warning" are advised of the reasons for those evaluations and how to go about satisfying the requirement. This is important, since even those who pass this review must also pass a Final Writing Portfolio Requirement prior to their semester of graduation. Each of the student's two submissions received a comprehensive explanation of reasons the student did not pass. In addition, the student received detailed corrections of the papers in both submissions. 

 For these reasons, the ombudsman concluded, it was not unfair of Juneau faculty to delay the student's admission to the BLA program pending satisfactory completion of the Writing Proficiency Review. The problem was not that they failed to give him full credit for his English composition courses, but that he failed to satisfy one of the other requirements for admission to the program. 
 However, the ombudsman found that the student had been given wholly different evaluations of the same papers by UAS English, sociology, and history instructors. The differences were apparent not only in the course and assignment grades, but in the written comments on the student's assignments. Papers that Juneau instructors graded A- ("well written"), A+ ("Your input into the review is great!"), A ("good job!"), and B failed the Writing Proficiency Review. In short, this student's writing was evaluated according to much more rigorous standards for the review than were applied to his regular class writing assignments by faculty in several academic disciplines both in Sitka and in Juneau.
 
 The ombudsman concluded it seemed unlikely that only one student had been affected by what appeared to be a systemic, cross-disciplinary disposition to award inflated grades on writing assignments. Further, the ombudsman agreed with the student that the university has an obligation to maintain consistent standards throughout its system. 

 Soon after this complaint was filed, UAS officials moved in several areas to remedy potential systemic problems highlighted by this student's experience, reviewing intercampus consistency in matters of grading policy, student placement in writing courses, content and methodology of writing courses, interdisciplinary coordination of writing assignments and evaluation standards, and student advising. The ombudsman noted, furthermore, that the academic program at UAS is subject to periodic accreditation review by the Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges. For these reasons, the ombudsman did not make formal recommendations for further university action. 

 UAS staff agreed that the student's experience raised troubling questions. One administrator said, "This has been a learning experience for us." 

Full text of the investigative report

Difficulty of Care Policy
Found Reasonable

The family of a young child with developmental disabilities called the Ombudsman's Office in 1997 to complain that the Division of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities (DMHDD) refused to fund services for the child under its difficulty of care policy. The policy is designed to compensate families for providing difficult residential care or services to a family member with a disability. An investigation into the division's decision revealed that payments under the policy were approved for only the most extraordinary cases, and that the child's needs were not that severe. 

 When their child was young, the family realized he had developmental disabilities, and they began an exhaustive process of seeking professional evaluations of him. He was eventually diagnosed severely emotionally disturbed and placed on DMHDD's waiting list for services. In August 1996, after about five years on the waiting list, the child's name was picked from the list and the family invited to begin putting together a comprehensive service plan for him with the division's help. 

 The parents quickly became frustrated in their attempt to get the services they thought were most appropriate for their son and their family. The parents filed an application with the division under the difficulty of care policy. In it the family proposed that the mother take care of the child at home full time with occasional respite from church volunteers. They wanted the division to pay the family $14,600 to care for the child at home, plus $2,500 for the respite.

 A committee comprised of a service provider, a consumer, a non-division state employee and a division staff member evaluated the family's application. The committee's task was to find whether the proposed care was "better" for the child than other service alternatives. This would require that the family had at least tried all other possible services in the area. In addition, the committee had to determine whether the family had "unique circumstances" to justify the difficulty of care payments. The committee recommended that Derrill Johnson, the division's developmental disabilities program specialist, deny the application, which he did. The division director's written decision advised the family to appeal if they disagreed. The family told the ombudsman they did not appeal because the division specialist working with them told them any appeal would certainly be denied. The specialist denied this. 
 During the investigation, Johnson said the division had funded only two families under the difficulty of care policy. Both cases involved young children with the most profoundly disabling medical conditions. Difficulty of care payments in the two cases allowed a parent to provide 24-hour in-home care for these disabled children.
 The ombudsman found that denial of the family's difficulty of care application could ultimately benefit the family by permitting their child to take advantage of a full package of wrap-around services valued at between $40,000 and $50,000. Overall, the ombudsman found the division had acted reasonably in applying its written difficulty of care policy. 

 In this case the division followed a written policy, but investigation found the division lacked other written policies and procedures applicable to the difficulty of care and other programs. The ombudsman suggested the division adopt more written policies. 


Small Businessman
Wasted by State

In August 1995, a Wasilla businessman complained to the ombudsman that the Commissioner of Administration unfairly cancelled his $10,000 state contract to dispose of infectious medical waste from several prison facilities. The contract was cancelled because another vendor protested that the Department of Corrections (DOC) had mishandled faxed notices and bids.
 The businessman said he learned the contract had been cancelled only after he had purchased supplies as directed by DOC and performed the contract for a month. He said DOC failed to notify him that the contract had been protested. 

 The protesting vendor appealed to the Department of Administration (DOA), whose hearing officer had overturned the contract without contacting the businessman to verify the facts presented by the protesting bidder. The DOA commissioner approved the hearing officer's decision and directed DOC to cancel the contract and award it to the protester. The businessman's letter appealing the commissioner's decision was filed without a response, and he was directed to remove from state property over $600 worth of medical waste disposal supplies for which he had no other use. 

 Investigation revealed that DOC's failure to notify the contractor that a protest had been filed violated the state Procurement Code. In addition, it turned out that DOC had no procedures for handling faxed Invitations to Bid and Requests for Proposals or for handling faxed vendor bids and proposals. The ombudsman also found that the DOA hearing officer violated the Procurement Code by not investigating the protest before taking the admittedly "rare" step of overturning the contract award. The ombudsman said the two agencies' failure to follow the Procurement Code meant that the businessman had no opportunity to present his side of the story. 
 In addition, the ombudsman found that the hearing officer had incorrectly analyzed the documentary record before ruling against the businessman, basing his decision on the belief that the businessman had knowingly violated the bidding rules. Because the businessman was unaware of the protest, he couldn't correct the hearing officer's mistake. When the businessman learned that his contract had been cancelled, he wrote to the DOA commissioner to dispute the decision, but his letter received no response. That's when he called the ombudsman. 

 The ombudsman wrote to the agencies, "Judged either way, by the requirements of the Procurement Code or by principles of equitable public administration, the testimony and point of view of the contractor in this case ought to have been solicited rather than disregarded. A short phone call to clarify the issue of fact on which this decision to cancel a contract was based would not have posed an undue burden on the hearing process. Further, it should not have been left to an outside agency (the ombudsman) to point out that... (the businessman) did not receive notice, and thus elementary due process, during the course of this protest and appeal." 

DOC agreed to the ombudsman's recommendation that the agency purchase the supplies the businessman purchased at DOC's direction before DOC cancelled the contract. 

 The ombudsman also recommended that DOC develop policies and procedures for using fax machines to issue contract announcements and to receive proposals and quotations from vendors. The ombudsman further recommended that agencies provide vendors more complete information on bid protests. DOC is a member of the state Procurement Advisory Council and agreed to ask the council to review the ombudsman's recommendations. 
DOA agreed to the ombudsman's recommendations that the chief hearing officer routinely provide vendors information clarifying the bid protest appeal process and refine a checklist to ensure that vendors obtain the proper protest and appeal information. 


Parents Liable for Welfare
for Runaway Children

An ombudsman investigation showed that parents were required to reimburse the state when their runaway children received public assistance despite their parents' willingness to provide them a home. The investigation was prompted by complaints from three different sets of parents whose children left home and received various forms of public assistance in 1995. 

 The runaway teens' parents complained that Division of Public Assistance (DPA) caseworkers did not attempt to determine if they were willing to support their runaway children. The parents were further angered when forced to pay child support to care for their children who chose to runaway and live outside their parents' home. They contended the public assistance grants served only to weaken their families and undermine their authority to raise their children. 

In one case, a teenage girl left her divorced mother's home and moved in with her older sister, even though each of her parents wanted her to live with them. The girl applied for and was initially granted food stamps and Medicaid benefits without her parents' knowledge. Once the benefits were granted to the girl, the Child Support Enforcement Division (CSED) initiated a support action against both parents. The girl's mother complained that DPA unreasonably granted benefits to the girl without ever attempting to determine if her daughter had another means of support. 
 The second case involved a teenager who gave birth while living with her parents and other siblings. Her parents remodeled their home to provide an apartment for the teenage mother and her infant. The parents told the ombudsman they wanted to support their daughter and her baby so she would complete high school. The girl ran away after her father got upset when he found her, the baby, and the infant's teenage father in bed together. Her parents invited their daughter to return home but she refused. She applied for and was granted welfare benefits. 

 The parents complained that no one from DPA attempted to determine their willingness or ability to care for their daughter in their own home before granting her public assistance. Then CSED began collecting support from the parents. The parents objected, arguing the amount was too high and prevented them from providing for their other children who still lived at home. CSED refused to consider the parents' expenses in raising their other children when calculating support owed the state for their runaway daughter's welfare grant. 

 The third case involved a boy who was adopted by a couple after his biological parents terminated their parental rights. Several years later, the boy left his adoptive parents' home and returned to live with his biological father. The biological father applied for public assistance to support the child and, once granted, CSED took action to collect child support from the adoptive parents. The adoptive parents contended that they should not be held responsible for repaying public assistance that DPA granted to the child's biological father, because his parental rights had been extinguished prior to the adoption.

 Some of the allegations in this investigation were found not supported because the agencies were following state and federal guidelines. The ombudsman recommended that some of these guidelines be changed to consider the rights of parents whose children run away from home. Corrective actions by CSED and DPA, including changes in welfare reform legislation, led the ombudsman to close this complaint as partially rectified. 


License Renewed with Ombudsman Help

A U.S. Army staff sergeant stationed in New Jersey e-mailed the ombudsman for help in getting his Alaska driver license renewed. The sergeant had been on extended foreign duty, first in Panama then Europe and finally on the East Coast and had not been able to return to Alaska between assignments to renew his license. 

 He already had renewed the license by mail once but said the Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) staff denied his request to renew via mail a second time. He was days away from losing his license. 
 An ombudsman investigator contacted DMV Director Jay Dulany, who said the agency already had agreed to grant a year's extension to out-of-state active duty service men and women pending approval of proposed regulations. Those regulations would extend the driver licenses of all armed services personnel while on active duty stationed outside Alaska. Dulany approved the sergeant's extension. He was unable to say why staff denied the sergeant's request before his intervention. The emergency regulations have since been approved. 


X Didn't Mark the Spot
for Licensing Agency

An Anchorage workman who had been certified to perform asbestos removal sought ombudsman assistance to fix a problem caused by a missing "X." The asbestos worker told the ombudsman that Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) licensing personnel required him to pay twice for his bi-annual license. The workman told the investigator that he had obtained a license in 1994 and took steps to renew the license again in 1996. Occupational Licensing workers told him he hadn't paid for the license in 1994 and required him to pay for that bi-annual license and for one to extend his license until 1998. 

 The asbestos worker said he had paid $100 cash for his 1994 license. When he went to renew the certificate in 1996, the agency couldn't find a record that he had paid for the license. The agency didn't dispute that he had taken classes to remain eligible for the certificate, only that he hadn't paid. He said he could only get his recertification card--which agency staff gave him--after he paid the second $100 licensing fee. 

 The ombudsman investigator learned that the Occupational Licensing workers made their demand after reviewing their computer records. Their records did not contain an X in the space that indicated the asbestos worker had paid for the certificate. They wanted him to produce a receipt showing he had paid. The asbestos worker argued that his license was his 1994 receipt. 

 The ombudsman investigator quizzed the agency director about the computer program that held the asbestos certification information. The agency relied on information from the computer program to document who held certificates. The agency did not have a backup method to document who paid for certification. Further, the computer program did not have a function that required all informational boxes be filled out before the information was stored. Thus the box indicating payment did not have to be checked before the information was stored. 

 In the process for recertification, an asbestos worker takes a refresher class and the class roster is sent to OSHA. The applicant then pays OSHA a recertification fee. After receiving the fee, OSHA mails a certificate form to the applicant who takes it to the Department of Motor Vehicles for a picture ID. Under that process, the applicant could not obtain the form without paying. 

The ombudsman pointed out that the absence of a checkmark did not prove that the asbestos worker had not paid any more than the presence of a checkmark proved the fee had been paid. The fact that OSHA sent the worker his license presented stronger proof of payment than the "X." 

 The OSHA director said that OSHA was aware already of problems with tracking fee payments in this area and was working to improve the system. He agreed with the ombudsman investigator's reasoning and refunded the worker's $100.


FYF Employee Misconduct Found

A Fairbanks Youth Facility (FYF) employee improperly charged to the agency more than $800 worth of merchandise intended for his personal use. The employee charged the items to a warehouse purchasing club account established by FYF to buy supplies for that facility's operations and its residents' use, according to ombudsman investigators. 

The investigation also found that the employee failed to pay the Sam's Club warehouse for the items despite several warnings from his supervisor. The vendor suspended the FYF account for non-payment of the invoices and late charges. 

 FYF is a juvenile correctional facility operated by the Division of Family and Youth Services (DFYS), Department of Health and Social Services. 

 The Ombudsman's Office investigated and found justified a complaint that alleged the FYF employee had engaged in misconduct by: 
 (1) charging merchandise intended for his personal use on the Sam's Club charge account which FYF established solely to purchase supplies for facility operations and residents' needs. 
 (2) failing to accurately document his sick or annual leave usage or to submit leave slips when absent. 

 The ombudsman found both allegations justified based on testimony by the employee and FYF staff and supporting agency records. Interviews with other FYF employees confirmed the employee was not held to the same ethical and leave reporting standards as other facility employees. During the course of the investigation, the employee resigned. 

 In submitting the investigative report to DFYS, the ombudsman recommended that the agency review the ombudsman's report and conduct any additional investigation the division considered necessary to determine appropriate disciplinary action. As a matter of long-standing policy, the ombudsman does not recommend specific personnel actions. 

 The ombudsman also recommended that DFYS annually review with its employees the Alaska Executive Branch Ethics Act (AS 39.52) and applicable agency policies and procedures concerning use of state resources, time reporting and leave accounting. The complaint was closed as justified and rectified based on the corrective action taken by the Division of Family and Youth Services. 


Bidding Process Questioned

An unsuccessful bidder for an Alaska Housing Finance Corporation (AHFC) contract appealed to the ombudsman for help after the corporation denied his bid appeal. 

 The bidder was one of three to apply for a grant contract. The program included components in three different regions and the bid request required six copies of the application. The complaining bidder interpreted the bidding rules to mean that he must submit 18 copies of the bid application. The unsuccessful bidder protested the bid because the successful bidder had not submitted 18 copies of the bid application. The two other bidders, including the successful bidder, submitted an original bid and five copies. 

 AHFC denied the protest, citing two Alaska Supreme Court rulings. One ruling stated that minor technical defects that do not affect the substance of a bid do not justify the rejection of a bid on the grounds that it is not responsive. A second ruling stated that a variance is only considered material if it gives the bidder a substantial advantage over other bidders, and thereby restricts or stifles competition. 

 The ombudsman investigation determined that while there was a variance in the bid packets, each contained the minimum threshold information. Further, review indicated that no bid evaluation points were awarded for the application format. Therefore, the format had no effect on the review. The ombudsman found the complaint unsupported by the facts. 


Wife's Driving Not Held Against Husband

A would-be Anchorage private snow removal driver called the ombudsman after the Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) administratively revoked his driver license for an offense for which his wife was convicted. 

 The driver told investigators he and his wife were involved in a one-car accident during a snowfall. He said he had been drinking but she was driving and drove their car into a snowbank.
 A police officer who happened upon the scene arrested the husband whose license had been revoked for a long history of driving while intoxicated charges. 

The husband told the ombudsman that the officer gave him a piece of paper that he filed away with his records. He said he did not read it because his wife was the driver. She pleaded guilty to reckless driving, was fined, and lost points on her driving record. 

The hapless husband didn't read the paper until months later when DMV denied his petition to reinstate his driver license because of the citation. It turned out the police officer's notice directed the man to respond to both court action and DMV administrative action. 

DMV employees told the husband that his license revocation would continue for several years because he had not responded to the administrative warning furnished by the officer. 

 The husband argued that DMV shouldn't penalize him for something for which his wife had been convicted. DMV workers said that the husband was out of luck because he had not responded to the notice in a timely manner. 

 Ombudsman investigators located a recent Supreme Court ruling that stated that a driver license is a valued property right and should not be revoked without a hearing on the merits of the case. Director Dulany agreed to review the merits of the case if the husband petitioned him. 

 The investigator advised the husband to file a written appeal to the director, citing the facts in the case and including the documentary evidence. The happy husband called several months later to say he was scheduled to take his road test the next day. 

 

CSED Erred in Releasing Address

A client of the Child Support Enforcement Division (CSED) contacted the Ombudsman's Office in 1995 to complain that CSED released her address to the child's inmate father. Both statutory and regulatory restrictions govern the release of client address information by CSED. 

 The woman advised the Ombudsman's Office that she had no direct contact with the father for over nine years. However, when CSED was closing the client's case, staff inadvertently sent a copy of the case closure letter to the father without first blocking out her address. As a result, the father began to telephone and write her. The woman was concerned because the father, who had previously been in an out-of-state prison, was now in prison in the same town where she lived. The father has since been transferred to another state prison. 

 At the time of the complaint, CSED had no written procedures concerning case closure notices, but a CSED supervisor indicated that most caseworkers send separate notices to the parties rather than sending a copy and blocking out the address.

 Alaska Statute 25.27.275 and its accompanying regulations, 15 AAC 125.210-.270, limit address disclosure to those cases where full payment has been made under a child support order and there is a right to visitation. The model Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA) authorized disclosure of address information with limited exceptions for health, safety and liberty considerations. However, when the Alaska Legislature enacted UIFSA (AS 25.25.101-.903) in 1995, it added an additional exception to the disclosure requirement in AS 25.25.312, namely the provisions of AS 25.27.275 requiring full payment of support and a visitation or joint custody agreement. 

 Investigation revealed that, in this case, at the time of this address release, there was no support order, no visitation order and no joint custody agreement. The ombudsman recognized that the disclosure of the client address was an inadvertent clerical mistake. However, the disclosure was in violation of both the statutory and regulatory requirements. Accordingly, the ombudsman found the allegation justified: CSED disclosed her address contrary to law. 

 CSED agreed with the ombudsman and took steps to cure this problem for the future. CSED's procedural desk manual now informs staff not to send copies of closing letters to the opposite party.

 

Audit Found Reasonable

The Alaska Housing Finance Corporation (AHFC) acted properly in reviewing an energy program grantee's records in the fall of 1995, the ombudsman reported. 

 The investigation into AHFC monitoring of the contractor operating the Energy Rated Homes of Alaska (ERHA) program found that the corporation had the contractural right and just cause to review the grantee's records. AHFC terminated the grant after its staff was denied access to records and the grantee refused to provide information that AHFC requested. 

 The Anchorage grantee complained to the ombudsman in 1996 that AHFC had conducted a "predatory audit" of her business, which had a grant agreement to operate the state's ERHA program. She alleged the monitoring was aimed at finding her in non-compliance with terms of the grant agreement so the grant could be terminated. 

While the ombudsman found that the AHFC acted properly in conducting the audit, the investigators criticized the manner in which AHFC middle management handled information relating to the ERHA grant. AHFC grant managers withheld from AHFC management information about major decisions relating to the grant. 

The ombudsman found that the state had sufficient cause to monitor the ERHA grant and had provided the businesswoman sufficient notice. The monitoring became adversarial when her employees, and then the businesswoman herself, denied AHFC auditors access to information in violation of the grant agreement. 

 

Guide License Found Proper

The ombudsman received a complaint in 1995 that the Division of Occupational Licensing had issued a guide-outfitter license to an unqualified person, a former lieutenant with the Division of Fish and Wildlife Protection (FWP). 

 According to the citizen who complained, the guide should not have received his license because: (1) his experience as an assistant guide was obtained in violation of the policies of FWP, (2) he was not compensated for his assistant guiding, and therefore he had not really acted as an assistant guide, and (3) his assistant guiding experience was obtained unethically, and therefore he did not meet the requirements of ethical conduct under state guiding statutes. 

 The ombudsman agreed with Occupational Licensing that it had no authority to discount guiding experience earned while the applicant was a law enforcement officer and that compensation was not critical in the definition of assistant guiding. 

 The ombusdman observed that under its statute, the agency could look at ethics related to guiding only, not ethics related to another job.


Agency Cleared in
Interest Rate Error

A homeowner in a Prince William Sound community contacted the ombudsman in January 1995 complaining that the Alaska Housing Finance Corp. (AHFC) did not inform the homeowner of all requirements for a loan interest reduction program, and then denied him the reduction because he did not comply with terms of the loan program. This complaint was found to be unsupported by the facts reviewed during the investigation. 

 The man purchased a home in spring of 1994. Prior to closing on the AHFC-backed home loan, he had an energy audit conducted. He informed his mortgage loan officer that he intended to make energy improvements to the home in order to qualify for the AHFC energy improvement interest rate reduction program. The AHFC program granted home loan interest rate reductions based on the amount of energy-saving improvements made on a structure. AHFC had contracted with a private company, Alaska Energy Rated Homes, to coordinate the program. 

 The homeowner focused his improvements on making the house more air-tight. When the structure was audited after the improvements were completed, the improvements qualified the homeowner for a .25 percent interest reduction but not the .50 percent reduction he had sought. He contended that the AHFC's Alaska Energy Rated Home program misled him about the types of energy improvements he should make to achieve the interest reduction. He said he had made thousands of dollars in improvements for a rating that he could have achieved by simply changing a shower head. 

 Investigation showed that the homeowner relied on information provided by the private contractor that administered the program for AHFC. When the homeowner complained to AHFC, AHFC officials took steps to have the contractor clarify the information provided to program participants. The ombudsman lacks statutory authority to investigate the actions of private individuals or firms--even if they are performing contract work for the state--so the ombudsman declined to further review this aspect of the complaint. 

 AHFC then denied the complainant any loan interest reduction at all. AHFC stated that the complainant was ineligible for the program because he had never taken the steps necessary to participate in the program. AHFC policy required that mortgage lending institutions notify AHFC of the loan applicant's intention to participate in the program before the loan closes. Investigation revealed the bank did not inform AHFC of the homeowner's intent before the loan was closed. Further, the bank did not contact AHFC until nearly six months after the mortgage closing and then waited another five months before submitting paperwork on the loan. AHFC denied the application at that time. The bank later reduced the homeowner's loan interest rate on its own. 


Commercial Vehicle
Inspections Inadequate

The Alaska State Troopers (AST) Commercial Vehicle Enforcement (CVE) unit is unable to fulfill its duty to inspect all Alaska commercial trucks and trailers twice a year, leaving tens of thousands of commercial motor vehicles (CMV) uninspected and in violation of state statute, the ombudsman found. 

 The investigation found that more than 36,000 CMV's are subject to a state statute requiring that they be inspected twice a year. Only the AST-CVE unit is authorized to inspect CMV's, but the five-person unit is able to inspect only 2,500 of them annually. 

 Although the ombudsman expressed sympathy for the underfunded and understaffed CVE unit, he found that the program does not allow either CVE or the CMV operators to meet the requirements of state law and highway safety. 

 Ombudsman Stuart Hall recommended that the CVE unit implement the provisions of AS 28.32.030, which calls for licensing private CMV inspection stations. He recommended also that AST consider charging a fee for inspections and review the statuatory requirements for semi-annual inspections to determine whether a change in the statute is warranted. AST Director Col. Glenn Godfrey said his agency is willing to explore a private inspection process. He added, however, AST-CVE inspectors meet national standards of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA). The national group does not recognize private industry inspectors or allow them to place CVSA inspection stickers on vehicles. 

 

Ombudsman Decries Delays
in Changing Support Orders

The Child Support Enforcement Division (CSED) was responsible for gross delays in modifying judicial child support orders, the ombudsman concluded in a 1997 investigative report. The Department of Law (Law) also contributed to significant delays in modifying the support orders, the ombudsman found.

Investigation uncovered insufficient evidence to conclude that the Alaska Court System also contributed to modification delays. 
 The ombudsman investigated three cases where parents complained CSED was taking too long to modify support orders. Federal rules require CSED to modify support orders within 180 days. But in one case the modification process took more than four years. 

 The ombudsman found numerous causes of delay on CSED's part: failure to communicate important case facts to clients; failure to process time-critical mail for months after it was received; lack of caseworker follow through on client inquiries; caseworker failure to communicate accurate information to clients; misinterpretation of court orders; clerical mistakes; lost files and paperwork; slowness in acting on internal agency prompts; and failure to systematically monitor CSED files outside the office at Law or in court. 

 The ombudsman recognized that delays in the modification process result from sources other than CSED, including slow or unresponsive clients, Law, the court system, and other states' collection agencies. However, because CSED is responsible for processing and completing modifications of child support orders, the ombudsman found the allegation of delay justified. Former CSED Director Glenda Straube said that her agency made "simple errors" in one of the three cases, but acknowledged no responsibility in the other two cases. 

 Attorney General Bruce Botelho did not contest the ombudsman's finding that Law contributed to delays in modifying the support orders. 

The ombudsman recommended that CSED, Law, and the courts take action together to make the modification process more efficient. The agencies began meeting regularly to discuss strategies for streamlining the process. 

 The ombudsman also recommended that the agencies give Alaskans who need changes in their child support orders the tools to handle their own modification cases in court. 

 

Patient Parent Finally Paid

Imagine this: you are an oil field worker on a two-week-on/two-week-off schedule. While you are at Prudhoe, your child's mother, who has a drug problem, applies for public assistance. She says you have abandoned the family but really she lives in your house and has full access to your checking account. She gets emergency assistance and uses the cash to buy drugs. She does this for years. After about four years, CSED sends you a notice that you owe the state for back child support that you must now pay. 

 When you finally figure out what happened, you explain to CSED that your child's mother received all that cash assistance fraudulently. But CSED says there is nothing they can do about it; you have to pay unless the Division of Public Assistance (DPA) tells CSED otherwise. 

 That's what happened to one Alaska oil field worker in the early 1990's. In 1995 he filed his first complaint with the ombudsman. An investigator advised him to file a complaint with the DPA fraud unit. 

 Because of confidentiality, DPA investigators could not tell him about the investigation. In November 1997, the worker called the ombudsman again to find out what was happening with the fraud investigation. 

 The investigator learned that the fraud unit had determined months earlier that the mother used fraud to get the cash assistance. Because of staff cuts, the case remained with the fraud unit until an employee could total up the loss to the state. And there was still one more step that could take months before the fraud unit would notify CSED. 

 The unit supervisor agreed to skip the last step, irrelevant to the worker's debt, and sent CSED a notice that fraud had occurred. 
 A CSED audit showed the agency owed the worker $11,727. CSED said it would reimburse the worker and close its case against him. After two years of waiting patiently and paying large amounts every month, the worker can expect a cash present from CSED this Christmas. 

 When the ombudsman investigator told him he would be getting a refund, the worker said he got "chills all over." 

 

Persistent Vets Get Land Discount

Following an ombudsman investigation, a group of veterans finally received a discount on land purchased in state land lotteries. Anchorage resident Glenn Sisson, a Vietnam veteran, complained to the ombudsman that the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) had not properly credited a discount to the purchase price of land he bought from the state in the 1983 land lottery. He contended that DNR should have applied the discount credit to the veterans' loans retroactively to the beginning of the life of the loan in order to properly credit the discount. To do otherwise, he contended, forced the veterans to pay more in interest to the state than they otherwise would have paid. 

 Without success, Mr. Sisson had argued this point to DNR officials, two governors and the attorney general from 1991, when the legislature enacted the discount, to 1995, when he contacted the ombudsman. Investigation showed that when DNR denied Mr. Sisson's proposed amortization of the loan, it contended that the bill's wording prohibited them from doing so. The legislation stated DNR "shall credit, without interest," to the account of an eligible veteran, 25 percent of the land purchase price. DNR contended that the words "without interest" prevented them from reamortizing the interest payments as Mr. Sisson desired. 

 DNR staff told ombudsman investigators that the agency was concerned that DNR staff time to do the accounting would be prohibitively costly and that the department would have to absorb in its operating budget the total cost of reamortizing the interest. 

 Because of the differing interpretations of the legislation's language, the ombudsman investigators turned to legislative intent language. That language directed that the purpose of the act was to "ensure that all veterans are treated equally and . . . not denied the veteran's discount that was available to all other veterans purchasing land from the state. . . . and to grant benefits to them in the same manner that it has granted benefits to other veterans." Normally, intent language is not binding on implementation of legislation. The ombudsman investigators researched legislation and Department of Law opinions on the issue of legislative intent. One opinion stated that when the language of a statute is ambiguous or easily misinterpreted, legislative intent can be considered to determine the meaning of the statute. 

Ombudsman investigators calculated that Mr. Sisson alone paid $15,000 more in interest because of the manner in which his $6,625 discount credit was applied. Because veterans in other lotteries were not required to pay excess interest on their loans, the ombudsman found that the agency had unfairly applied the discount to the 36 veterans in the 1983 lottery. The ombudsman recommended that DNR determine if the Alaska Legislature wished to appropriate the amount necessary to reimburse these veterans the amount of overpayment. 

DNR Commissioner John Shively agreed with the ombudsman. DNR calculated the cost of implementing the ombudsman's recommendation at $245,931. Of that, $239,531 was the estimated amount of refunds and credits for overpayments; the cost of hiring a contract worker to do the accounting work would be about $6,400. 

Commissioner Shively reported this information to the 1997 Alaska Legislature, which funded reamortization of the 36 veterans' loans and reimbursed the veterans for overpayments.

 

Sourdough Gets Back License

A sourdough was smiling in fall 1997 after his driver license was reinstated with help from the ombudsman. The Department of Public Safety mistakenly suspended the license following a fender bender. When the insurance company affirmed that the sourdough was making prompt and regular restitution payments to their policyholder, the department lifted the suspension and voided the normal $100 reinstatement fee. 

Even more important than saving $100, the sourdough had his license in time to lay in the 10 cords of wood needed for winter and to take his visiting grandchild sightseeing in rural Alaska. 

 

Ombudsman Helps Adoptive
Parents and Children

In 1997, a hopeful adoptive father contacted the Ombudsman's Office for help in getting the Division of Family and Youth Services (DFYS) to finalize paperwork so he and his wife could adopt the four siblings DFYS had placed with them some years earlier. The children were Alaska Natives with special needs. The father said the DFYS social worker was delaying the required paperwork. The investigator talked with the social worker who agreed to get everything done before she moved out of state. 

But two months later the father called again. He, his wife and the children were still waiting for DFYS to complete the paperwork. This time there were also questions about whether DFYS would actually support the adoption. One social worker had told the parents the agency might not but another worker said it would. The parents were frightened that their family might be separated and the children deprived of a permanent home. 

To complicate the situation, five different DFYS offices were involved in making decisions on the family's case. In addition to the director's office in Juneau, the family's primary social worker, her supervisor, the secondary social worker and his supervisor were all in different offices. All of the players at DFYS had a teleconference set for a few days after the father contacted the ombudsman the second time. 

Before the DFYS teleconference, the investigator talked with the parents to find out precisely what all their concerns and questions were. She relayed the list of concerns to the primary worker's supervisor and to the secondary worker. Both were people the parents trusted to make good decisions and follow through. Because of communication gaps, the parents' concerns came as a surprise to some of the DFYS workers. When they had the teleconference, the DFYS workers were able to reach consensus on all of the family's concerns. 

After the teleconference, the primary worker's supervisor reported back to the ombudsman investigator about what decisions were reached. The investigator in turn reported back to the parents so they would know what was discussed, the decisions that were made, and what they could expect from DFYS. Understandably, they were very grateful that DFYS heard their concerns. 
In a happy ending to the story, the children's adoptions were finalized in court a few months later. 

 

Missing Limited Entry
Permit Troubles Fisherman

A Bristol Bay fisher asked the ombudsman for help to find what happened to a limited entry fishing permit he had left with a friend and now wanted to transfer to his own son. He contended that he wanted to transfer the permit to his son but the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission unreasonably would not allow him to do so. 

 The fisher told the ombudsman that he had acquired two fishing permits in 1976 and transferred one to his son in 1978. He also said that he had left that permit with a friend and now wanted to transfer it to another relative. The friend told the investigator that the fisher had at one time left the copy of the permit certificate with him but he believed it to be of no value. 

 The investigator learned that the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission (CFEC) has a specific process to transfer fishing permits. The process for transferring permits is established in state law, which requires the permit holder and transferee to sign sworn affidavits stating that the transfer request is true. Unless the CFEC receives those affidavits, the transfer will be denied. The permit certificate left with the friend was of no value under this system because the CFEC maintains the actual permit record. Further, the CFEC had no record of the fisher holding a permit at the time he contacted the ombudsman. 

Records did indicate that the fisher at one time owned two permits. One had been transferred to his son in 1978. The son transferred it to another person in 1979 and that person transferred it again in 1983 to still another person who owns the permit today. 

 CFEC records also showed that the fisher signed an agreement to purchase and sell his second permit to another fisher in 1995. Records also showed that the fisher had renewed his permit yearly until 1995 when the purchaser renewed it and picked it up in King Salmon. 

Because the fisher had transferred both permits according to state law, the ombudsman found the allegation not supported. 

 



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