Sunday, May 19, 2024

Montana wardens describe fear, intimidation, while audit finds missing paperwork, scattered data

by DARRELL EHRLICK Daily Montanan
| September 27, 2023 12:00 AM

An audit of Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks Enforcement Division paints a picture of employee dissatisfaction, retaliation and fear, while leaders within the department could not provide any human resources paperwork.

More than half the game wardens surveyed by state auditors from the Legislative Audit Division said they feared retaliation from leadership in Helena and complained that the agency was turned into an arm of county law enforcement. Some employees refused to talk openly with auditors because of a repeated series of leaks and retaliation.

“We also found that HR did not comply with the Secretary of State’s retention schedule for many personnel documents related to hiring and performance reviews,” the auditors said in the report, released Monday. “Further study would determine what effect this has had on other divisions of FWP outside enforcement. Current practices in HR could open FWP up to risk of litigation.”

A spokesman for the FWP declined to comment on the audit until after it’s presented to the Legislative Audit Committee on Oct. 5. However, the audit reported the department and FWP Director Dustin Temple concurred with all of the audit’s recommendations.

AUDITORS SAID that multiple interviews with staff members in the enforcement division said a change in morale can be traced to a decision to centralize management in 2020. Previously, enforcement leadership reported to the regional leadership. After 2020, all enforcement, which would include wardens, reported through a system of captains and sergeants, streamlined through Helena:

“Captains and sergeants we interviewed in the regions described a change under previous leadership from a culture of open communication in those meetings to limited discussion and a lack of tolerance for dissenting opinions. Wardens described a retaliatory environment if they spoke out in disagreement with management decisions. During our audit, some wardens we spoke to were apprehensive about providing information due to lingering fear of retaliation. In some cases, wardens felt uncomfortable providing us with documentation over email on their FWP laptops fearing enforcement leadership may find out.”

Auditors also traced some of the fear and mistrust to “documented allegations of a past inappropriate relationship that likely contributed to the lack of trust in HR by wardens.”

The auditors also found a case where a member of the FWP’s human resource team had leaked a confidential complaint. Auditors also noted that the HR management within the FWP had been turned over five times in the past decade, and is currently hiring after the previous HR manager was in the position for less than a year.

Fifty percent of the wardens believed they had experienced retaliatory behavior or intimidation by the chief’s office in the past five years, yet FWP human resources told auditors it was unaware of any complaints from the enforcement division.

“Some wardens we interviewed talked about considering early retirement or a career change if they did not see a change in leadership,” the report said.

And the auditors noted the upheaval in the enforcement division office, citing the former chief who was placed on administrative leave in 2022, then retired with a settlement payment. Meanwhile, two employees were reinstated after the chief left.

A third party looked into the enforcement division and found that problems there had not been reported to HR, nor had they been acknowledged by the department, helping to create a culture of fear and mistrust.

AMONG THE other problems within the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department, auditors found next to nothing in the human resource files, which would include information on hiring, employee discipline and employee reviews. Auditors noted that the missing paperwork could potentially become a liability for the state.

“In trying to review the details of events that led to several members of enforcement management being placed on administrative leave, we learned HR claimed to have lost their performance reviews or they were never completed at all by enforcement and the director’s office,” the audit said.

State policy requires the FWP have a hiring plan for every time the department wants to add staff. Those plans include guidance for minimum qualifications, ranking qualified candidates and interviews.

“After hearing accusations of unfair hiring practices aired by multiple wardens, (auditors) requested to review all hiring documents for sergeants and captains for the last five years. HR staff indicated they could not locate those documents,” the report read.

Auditors said that, at first, the department believed the missing documents were on the laptop of one employee who was on administrative leave. Not wanting to interfere with that leave, the department declined to retrieve them.

“We asked multiple times for those documents and never received them,” auditors concluded. “A lack of internal controls in hiring processes leaves the opportunity for the type of bias in hiring that was alleged by many wardens during this audit. This leaves the department open to future litigation similar to what they have faced in past hiring process.”

THE AUDIT also found that managers at Fish, Wildlife and Parks either didn’t know about the data the department was collecting, or had not presented it properly, leading auditors to warn lawmakers and the public that some of the data put out by the department is simply unreliable.

“In most cases, managers were unaware of the trends we presented even though they published enforcement data in the annual report to the public, stakeholders and legislators,” the audit said. “We asked enforcement management about the data in the report and they indicated there are likely errors. For example, in the 2021 report, none of the published contact counts (number of times law enforcement had contact with the public) align with the data provided to us by FWP. Management said they likely could not reproduce the numbers due to system errors, reporting errors and other system issues.”

When interviewed about the problems with the annual reports, managers said that the report should include a statement that said the numbers are estimated and not a guarantee, but that no such statement exists.

However, auditors stated the public should know that if they rely on the information in those reports, auditors could not make the numbers align.

“The data in the Enforcement annual report should be considered unreliable,” it said.

Auditors even questioned whether the department should be using data from its enforcement division to make decisions about how and where wardens should spend their time.

They also pointed out that lawmakers use the reports to help decide resources and possible legislation, which the auditors said could be problematic.

“Enforcement could be over or under-funded without accurate information because the legislature is basing its decisions on inaccurate or insufficient information,” it said.

The audit also noted that there is no policy that determines what kind of data the department collects, and no standards for data collection. Furthermore, there are no steps for ensuring or double-checking data.

“This led to many of the issues we had to address to provide the analysis,” the audit said, “including inaccurate location data and incorrect activity groups.”

AUDITORS ALSO found that Fish, Wildlife and Parks does not consistently track information, and that what gets tracked by wardens in the field varies from region to region, leaving auditors virtually unable to say much definitive about how enforcement and activities are approached on a statewide level.

“Testing, survey responses and interviews all indicated problems with accuracy and consistency in the warden division,” the audit said.

The FWP utilizes the SmartCOP software, but the information the division has produced “revealed further uncertainty about data accuracy and inconsistency in entering data among regions,” it said.

Auditors also found that even some of the changes in the data that tracked warden activities had changed significantly in the previous couple of years, but that leaders within the department were either unaware of the changes, or were not using the data.

For example, the audit showed that six different activities had a 30% decrease in time dedicated to them between the years 2019 and 2021.

Criminal investigation had been reduced by more than 2,500 hours, or down 11%; park patrol had decreased by 24% or more than 1,200 hours. Meanwhile two of the largest increases were administration, which saw a leap of more than 5,300 hours or 18%, and training which increased 3,300 hours or 21%.

The priority shifts in the department contributed to the shift in morale in the department, according to the report.

“Wardens continually discussed this as a cultural shift that affected morale within the division,” auditors said.

Some of the data also raised questions about how the department was allocating staff time.

“We looked at overall changes in activity hours, contacts, license sales, citations and enforcement FTE from 2019 to 2021,” the report said. “License sales in this analysis are used as an indicator of recreation. The results show increases in license sales from 2019 to 2021. With an increase in recreational license sales, we expect to see increased activity hours, contacts, and citation to show wardens adapting to the increased recreation. However, 2019-2020 was the only period in which contacts and citation increased. From 2019 to 2021, we saw a decrease in every dataset except license sales.”

MONTANA FISH, Wildlife and Parks is scheduled to present its finding at an Oct. 5 Legislative Audit Committee Meeting, where the report will be discussed.

And auditors suggested that more investigation into the division may be necessary, but Legislative Audit Division spokesman Eric Seidel told the Daily Montanan that decision will ultimately be up to lawmakers, who have the final say.

“We introduced the HR topic as an issue for further study (within the audit). Doing so allows the committee to prioritize as a potential subject for a future audit. They also may choose not to,” Seidel said. “Keep in mind that in this audit, we had several topics within our scope that we were looking at when we ran into complications from HR. If prioritized, we would have to take a more focused look at this single subject.”

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, a nonprofit newsroom. To read the article as originally published, click here.