The head of Eastern State Hospital billed state taxpayers for at least 98 personal, out-of-state telephone calls, the state auditor’s office reports.
Investigators also found Steven Covington, CEO of the Medical Lake mental hospital, misused state vehicles and received too sweet of a deal on the big house he rents from the state for $91 a month.
State Auditor Brian Sonntag said Covington’s abuse of state telephone privileges is as bad as he has seen. He also said this case is highly unusual because Covington continues to deny he made any of the calls.
“Usually you might find someone who makes a few inadvertent calls, and when we point it out they quickly reimburse the state,” Sonntag said. “In this case, this was complete disregard” for the law.
The audit report, obtained by The Spokesman-Review, follows an 11-month investigation into a complaint by a top hospital employee that Covington abuses the powers of his post.
Covington and his superiors at the state Department of Social and Health Services said Thursday they are still reviewing the audit and could not comment on it.
“We have confidence in Mr. Covington’s ability to lead the hospital,” said Jann Hoppler, director of the state’s mental health division.
While DSHS has already concurred internally with the auditor’s findings, Hoppler said she needs to see more documentation before deciding whether Covington should be disciplined.
Investigators documented 395 outof-state calls from Covington’s state-authorized calling number during a 13-month span ending July 31, 1995, the report says.
Of those calls - lasting a total of 36 hours - at least 98 were deemed personal. Most were made to Kentucky and Ohio, where Covington lived and worked before arriving to run Eastern two years ago.
The calls were to Covington’s family members, his attorney, his acquaintances and others in those areas, the report states. The 98 calls, about 15 hours of chat, cost the state $123.
Another 48 calls went to Kentucky and Ohio, the bulk of which were to Covington’s former employer, but the auditors could not prove they were personal or made by Covington.
“I have followed policy at all times and have not intentionally done anything wrong,” Covington said Thursday.
He said the scrutiny he is receiving is the work of irked by his efforts to cut costs, beds and staff at the hospital.
“My main focus is working on the issues of the hospital,” Covington said, noting he has already accomplished his mandate to pull the hospital out of debt.
The state investigation of Covington was triggered by a whistleblower complaint filed by his former top assistant, Shirley Maike.
Maike, who has worked at Eastern for 21 years, served on the hospital’s executive committee and was the CEO’s top assistant before getting demoted last year.
“I’m just glad it’s finished,” Maike said Thursday, declining to further discuss the audit.
The state didn’t substantiate two of Maike’s claims, including her assertion that Covington’s renovations of his house destroyed historic areas.
But auditors verified Covington used state vehicles for personal business.
They found the odometer readings after his travels showed excessive driving miles for at least 10 of his 25 trips during a 13-month span.
When questioned, Covington couldn’t explain 1,080 excess miles on those 10 trips, the audit states.
For example, Covington recorded a round trip between Eastern State Hospital and Toppenish, Wash., as 626 miles. The actual distance is less than 400 miles.
In its audit response, DSHS said it would review Covington’s use of state vehicles and “recover the cost of personal trips.”
The auditor’s office also indicated the state either must charge Covington the full market rental price for his on-campus house or consider it a gift and tax it as such.
Covington pays $91.08 a month for the 10-room, 4,000-square-foot brick home. The home would rent for about $950 a month on the open market, the report stated.
DSHS concurred that Covington’s housing arrangement is inappropriate and needs to be corrected.
Sonntag said the whistleblower, Maike, deserves credit for exposing problems.
“All credit needs to go to a very brave front-line state employee who wanted to point out some abuse and make state government work better,” he said. “When abuses happen and are identified then all of us public employees share the rap and the wrath of the public.”