Tupelo’s Public Works Department was an office awry, with hip-

Tupelo’s Public Works Department was an office awry, with hip-shot decisions on project work and employees afraid to disclose wrongdoing, an internal city audit concluded.

The audit cites “significant purchasing law violations” in the department, including failure to bid on projects and materials, falsification of records and invoices, and possible coercion of contractors to direct work to other, more expensive contractors.

The audit, released Wednesday, was spurred by huge cost overruns, perhaps exceeding $780,000, on the stalled Ridgeway subdivision drainage and street project.

Questionable practices extended beyond Ridgeway, the report said.

The report cited an apparent “attitude” in the department “that the end justified the means … Get the Job Done and Do as You’re Told or You’re Fired.”

“Internal controls at the line supervisory levels appeared to break down because these employees feared losing their jobs if they did not do what they were told, even if it meant falsifying records,” the audit said. “Had those employees come forward in the beginning, it is our opinion that this matter would not have reached the proportions it did.”

The audit, reflecting earlier figures released by the state auditor’s office, said the city was billed for 1,680 cubic yards of minor structure concrete, but subsequent studies show that less than 104 were delivered. The cost was $500 a cubic yard, which included the charge for labor and materials needed to form the concrete.

Department employees falsified records and computer controls were altered to “allow additional purchases over the quantities bid,” the auditors said.

No individual names

The report did not list individuals by name, but did refer to the “Public Service director” and two specific contractors. The public service director at the time was Randy McMickin, who was fired last month after the Ridgeway debacle was discovered.

McMickin declined comment on the audit Wednesday night, saying he had not seen it.

“I’m not going to make a comment on something I have not seen,” he said.

Prepared by city Finance Director Lynn Norris and Internal Auditor Lucretia Winter, the report said the probe’s findings “lead us to believe that substantial sums of money have been paid to Crawford Contractors for work that does not appear to have been done.”

Minor structure concrete bids are taken yearly by the city, and Crawford Contractors was named an alternate supplier on a bid that was $100 higher than the low bid from R&W Construction Co.

But the audit said R&W officials reported they were directed by the public service director to sign letters “stating that they could not perform the work for which they bid … even though they could have provided the service.”

“R&W stated that the letters were signed in hopes that if they cooperated, they could receive city work in the future,” the audit said.

A woman who answered the telephone at Crawford Contractors’ home office number in Batesville declined comment and refused to reveal her identity.

“Right now, we don’t have anything to say,” she said. “I … the company will talk with you within a couple of weeks.”

Dirt, pipe, commodities

The report also said the probe showed there was no one assigned to observe receipt of materials, such as dirt, pipe, and commodities, at the public service stockpile and indicated the city may have been overcharged as much as 20 percent for such materials. It also indicated a private contractor had 24-hour access to the materials without oversight.

Significant amounts of city dirt was also put on private Ridgeway lots, apparently at no charge to property owners, the audit said.

It also said, “We find no evidence of the required monthly reports to the city” by the project engineer, Frank Castles & Associates.

“The engineers were to interpret the intent of the plans and specifications to protect the city against defects and deficiencies in construction on the part of the contractors,” it said.

Castles could not be reached for comment.

Mayor Jack Marshall said the city is studying implementation of a central purchasing and warehousing system to help avoid such problems, but noted that sound procedures were in place. Somebody just found a way to override them, he said.

He also discounted employee claims they were “afraid” to blow the whistle on the department practices.

“If any employee feels they have to be dishonest to keep their job, I wish they would come see me,” Marshall said. “We would not tolerate that.”

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