September 14, 1997 in Nation/World

Welfare Official Taps Rolls For Own Firm Subject Of Probe Says Hiring Practice Is Ethical

By The Spokesman-Review
 

A Spokane welfare administrator is accused in whistleblower complaints of violating ethics law by using his position to ensure a steady supply of labor to his side business.

Robert Absolor has hired at least nine welfare recipients off his north Spokane office’s rolls for his 10-month-old janitorial company, according to informed sources and state records.

The pipeline feeding J & B Unlimited is the target of a pair of whistleblower complaints, filed in April, that have triggered a Washington State Patrol investigation into “improper government conduct,” said Absolor’s supervisor, Bernard Nelson.

Absolor, 45, also is being investigated for misusing state equipment. Most of the welfare recipients Absolor hired are Southeast Asian refugees who came to the United States seeking political asylum.

All but one were referred to J & B by Vang Xiong X. Toyed, an Employment Security jobs counselor stationed in the Department of Social and Health Services office managed by Absolor, according to records and interviews.

Absolor and Xiong appear to be good friends, co-workers say. They work for separate state agencies housed in the same building, and have been seen frequently huddling behind closed doors for long meetings.

Calls actions ethical In a brief interview last week, Absolor said he researched the law before launching his business and is confident it passes muster.

“I try to keep that a very separate part of my life,” said Absolor, who earns $58,870 a year as a welfare administrator. “I try to keep things ethical.”

Absolor declined further comment, referring questions to his attorney, Robert Critchlow.

Critchlow wouldn’t discuss the investigation. “At this point, I’m not going to talk about anything,” he said.

Xiong did not respond to repeated requests for interviews.

DSHS policy and state ethics law prohibit state employees from using people they control or direct for personal gain.

Under the law, employees also can’t profit from their state job, must avoid “direct or indirect” conflicts of interest, and are barred from using their jobs to gain “special privileges.”

Unlike other employers, Absolor has access to confidential welfare files - which contain information about the recipient’s work, family and medical history.

Competitors in the commercial cleaning business, where employee turnover is high, struggle to gain even small advantages.

Xiong’s referrals of welfare recipients to J & B could also violate state rules and regulations if he is found to have helped another state employee profit. Xiong has no known business interest in the janitorial company.

Ethics law violations could result in termination and fines of up to $5,000 per offense, plus investigative costs.

Welfare employees say Absolor’s moonlighting is well-known at the 93-employee office on East Francis.

DSHS workers interviewed for this story asked not to be identified, fearing reprisals from Absolor and other supervisors.

“We are supposed to be working with and for the poor, not exploiting them,” one welfare worker complained.

“You tend to wonder where the honesty lies. These types of things bring down the staff who are working hard and working honestly,” said another.

Took home computer

According to one whistleblower complaint obtained by The Spokesman-Review, Absolor took home a state-owned U.S. Micron computer, a machine worthless for DSHS business unless plugged into a network at the office.

According to informed sources, when State Patrol detectives investigated, they found the machine in the welfare office disemboweled, its electronic components ripped out. The investigation didn’t lead to criminal charges.

In response to the whistleblower’s complaint involving the computer, regional supervisor Nelson issued an areawide memo July 11 that called for tighter inventory of state property taken home by employees.

The WSP’s reports about the computer were sent to Olympia and are now part of the larger ethics probe. An attorney for the WSP, Carol Smith, refused to discuss the computer or Absolor’s side business, citing an ongoing investigation.

WSP gets involved

The WSP began handling investigations of alleged misconduct at DSHS after supervisors ignored complaints of sex abuse at the OK Boys Ranch near Olympia in 1994.

Nelson approved Absolor’s involvement in J & B on Dec. 19, noting that Absolor shouldn’t moonlight on DSHS property or contract with the agency for work.

Ethics concerns arose a few months later, after Absolor hired his first welfare recipients. In a March 13 memo, Absolor told Nelson of a conversation he had with a state assistant attorney general about the ethics law.

In the memo, Absolor said he transferred files of recipients hired by J & B to another welfare office in southwest Spokane.

“With proper safeguards in place, a conflict and the appearance of a conflict could be averted,” Absolor wrote. Nelson obtained copies of the transfer reports.

Absolor wrote Nelson a month later to say six welfare recipients - four from Absolor’s office - were on J & B’s payroll.

Nelson said Friday he doesn’t consider Absolor’s hiring practices unethical and would be surprised if investigators found Absolor breached the public trust.

“My understanding was that Bob took as prudent an approach as he could, not insensitive to the significant conflict of interest principle,” Nelson said.

Nelson praised Absolor’s 25 years of service for DSHS, and his history of working with disabled people and advocating affirmative action.

“His work to date I would have no reason to question,” Nelson said.

Audrey Adams, head of the southwest Spokane office, said transfers of such “administrative files” are common, usually occurring when a DSHS employee has a friend or relative as a recipient.

Adams estimated there are 15 such files in her office. Absolor alone has transferred at least eight, records show.

Absolor took over the North Spokane Community Services Office, 1925 E. Francis, in 1994, after transferring from a top post in King County.

He and his wife, Jane, share a $114,000 brick home in the Spokane Valley with their four children.

Started business in November

The Absolors started J & B Unlimited out of their basement on Nov. 1, 1996, buying a franchise from National Maintenance Contractors of Spokane, owned by Will McGurk. McGurk’s wife, Michelle, works in Absolor’s office.

Soon after J & B started up, Xiong began referring welfare recipients to Absolor, according to DSHS documents.

Four recipients hired by Absolor said they weren’t coerced into taking the janitorial jobs.

But welfare benefits could have been cut off if they refused. Before last year’s legislative reforms, DSHS required either a husband or wife to work, or search for work, if welfare supported the family. The four were married to housewives.

New get-to-work rules starting Nov. 1 require able-bodied recipients to take the first job offered or risk losing benefits.

Last March, Vang Xiong told welfare recipient Bee Xiong, who shares Hmong heritage but is not related to Vang, that “a friend” needed workers.

A short time later, Bee Xiong was hired part time by J & B. He earns $6 an hour, cleaning the Bayer Corp. building on North Nevada.

There was enough work to go around, with the offices of Group Health, Qualmed, and American Linen, among others to clean. Absolor told DSHS employees business was good.

Cheng Lor, a J & B employee since February, recalls Vang Xiong talking about helping Absolor find workers. “Bob needs someone to go to work; Vang says he finds a Hmong,” said Lor.

Others were recruited - including Cheng’s brother Pao and cousin Ge.

Recent refugee hired

Yuriy Kozubenko, a recent refugee from Chechnya, was hired off Absolor’s welfare rolls in August. His 21-year-old son, Michael, soon joined him.

Lam Nguyen’s job cleaning an east Spokane building for J & B lasted a week in April. The 52-year-old Vietnamese refugee said he quit over a pay dispute with Absolor.

All of the employees interviewed made at least $6 an hour and said Absolor and his wife are pleasant to workers.

Despite the paperwork transfer, Xiong remains the Employment Security contact of at least some of the J & B employees. Several have quit, and returned to Xiong for help.

The jobs counselor was previously involved in questionable work activity.

A federal jury in 1989 found that Xiong violated the civil rights of two Hmong women. The jury believed the women’s claim that Xiong promised jobs, but instead took them to Spokane motels and raped them. He threatened to kill them if they told authorities, according to court records.

Prosecutors said they lacked enough “corroborating evidence” to press criminal charges. Xiong has maintained the sex was consensual.

The federal jury hearing the civil case awarded the women $225,000 in damages. The state still withholds $200 every month from Xiong’s $39,670-a-year salary.

The state also paid the women $106,000 to settle a claim that Xiong’s supervisors were negligent in over-seeing him.

The type of allegation against Absolor is rare, said a spokesman for the state auditor’s office.

But Greg Devereaux, executive director of the Federation of State Employees union, fears Washington’s welfare reform, called Work-First, will spur more complaints of unethical practices.

“There has been emphasis on placing (welfare recipients into jobs) for some time, but now there is such pressure,” said Devereaux. “And so it’s even more important that situations be examined through the lens of the ethics law.

“If you don’t have the ethics law, you might have more situations where an administrator got credit for placing recipients into work that benefited him.”

, DataTimes

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