13 INVESTIGATES: Birmingham Water Works Board - Alabamas13.com WVTM-TV Birmingham, AL

13 INVESTIGATES: Birmingham Water Works Board

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BIRMINGHAM, AL - While our Birmingham Water Works Board probe started two months ago, this story truly begins 18 months earlier.

In October 2012, former Water Board employees sued the utility in federal court.

They argued supervisor Darryl Davis inflated overtime and ordered the employees to, "pay him the ‘extra’ wages in cash."  

Both Davis and the Birmingham Water Works Board denied the claims in court.

However, those allegations prompted the Board to pay Birmingham accountant Michael Mason $100,000 to audit their operations.

In February, he released his findings and they were not flattering. Read them yourself by clicking on the link to the left.

Mason cited 200 examples of "weaknesses and deficiencies".

They included a claim that water leak repair crews are not dispatched, "until the customer calls 3 times."

The report also stated that over a three year period, the Birmingham Water Works Board spent $537,782 on expensed mileage for 32 employees, including $28,543 for General Manager Mac Underwood.

Mason also highlighted areas like ‘potential overtime abuse’ and ‘potential fraud that was brought to the attention of management but not adequately addressed.’    

We searched the document and the word 'fraud' appears 85 times. 

When we asked Birmingham Water Works Board Chairman Jackie Robinson if that number surprised him, he replied, “I am surprise he used it 85 times but if you look through the document in general, there are about 74 or 75 redundancies with the same problem being reiterated with a different number over and over in the audit.”

 We sat down with Robinson to question him about a range of topics, including the audit.

 While the Board disagrees with some of the report's findings, Robinson admitted it did make some valid suggestions for improvement.

“I don't want to say that everything in the audit is bad.  I mean there are four of five things in the audit that the board has taken a look at that we will be addressing or that we have already fixed,” Robinson pointed out.

While they were recently responding to the audit in Birmingham, the Board was battling to keep the status quo in Montgomery.    

Earlier this year, a couple of local lawmakers introduced a bill they claim provided better representation and more accountability on the Birmingham Water Works Board.

“This bill simply adds some representation for rate payers, requires the board to fall under the ethics act, public hearings for all rate increases and they are using rate payer dollars to hire lobbyists to kill this legislation,” said Homewood Representative Paul DeMarco.

How much money is Representative Paul DeMarco talking about?

Let us break it down for you.

On one flank, the City of Birmingham paid four lobbyists a total of $130,000.

On the Water Board's flank, there was an additional $210,000.

When you combine those two, DeMarco's reform bill was facing at least $340,000 of lobbying influence. 

After passing in the Senate, it died in the House on the last day of the legislative session.

A day later, we sat down State Senator Jabo Waggoner, who introduced the Senate version of the bill.

“The Water Works Board, they're celebrating because the bill was defeated.  And the lobbying community, it was good payday for the lobbying community,” Waggoner argued.

Representative John Rogers believes the lobbyist impact is exaggerated.

He said he helped orchestrate the bill's demise behind the scenes.

Why?

He felt its sponsors tried to sneak the bill by the Jefferson County Delegation, of which Rogers is the Chairman.

Plus he thinks the true push behind the bill had little to do with accountability.

“The real reason never was for transparency.  It was a matter of takeover,” Rogers said.

However, Senator Waggoner insists the $340,000 of the public's money spent on lobbyists goes beyond its influence in Montgomery.

“When you spend hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to defeat legislation, and I have rarely seen that kind of effort as many years as I have been in this arena, there's something going on that they don't want somebody else to see,” Waggoner concluded.

So when we asked Chairman Robinson if the Birmingham Water Works Board was hiding something, he responded, “First of all, we are not hiding anything.  And one thing we need to note when he talks about that.  Birmingham Water Works has had lobbyists in Montgomery for almost 25 years. The only area where brought anyone else to our staff was due to the response from the legislators that they weren't getting enough communications from us.”

“We did not need to spend additional ratepayer money on additional lobbyists,” Birmingham Water Works Board Member Ann Florie told us.

Florie was the only Board Member which voted against funding more lobbyists.

She claims the legislation offered much-needed reform for the board.

“We are technically accountable as a Board to no one.  And I think when you have a situation like that you have a tremendous responsibility to be transparent.  I thought the things that were in the bill spoke to transparency.”

Board Chairman Jackie Robinson argued the fact they ordered the Michael Mason audit shows they are transparent.

In fact, he's even willing to turn over Mason's findings to the State's auditors.

“Let them take a look at it and give us a third-party independent view like they do of any public agency that they go in and take a look at and see what they think about the Mason report, our action items for addressing it and things that we've done to make sure that we are running the best system we can,” Robinson said.

We will keep tabs on Chairman Robinson's claims and see if the Board follows through on his offer of additional transparency.

Meanwhile, the federal lawsuit which prompted the Water Works Board to hire outside auditor Michael Mason, is still pending.
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