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Zoo, Animal Park Targets of Fraud Inquiry : Funding: State agency suspends payments in a $621,600 employee-retraining contract pending results of investigation.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A state agency said Wednesday that it has suspended payments and will begin reviewing allegations of fraud and misrepresentation in a $621,600 contract with the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park to retrain its animal keepers.

The action by the Employment Training Panel, which pays for retraining programs to help reduce unemployment, was taken in response to inquiries from The Times this week about reports that zoo managers were aware of--and in some cases encouraged--animal keepers to falsify homework assignments so the zoo could receive the state money for its retraining program.

ETP officials also said they will look into allegations that zoo administrators exaggerated the threat of layoffs on their original 1989 application for the funds, and that the zoo billed the state improperly for some gardeners and electricians who took the course intended for animal keepers.

“I think the panel is interested in finding out whether there have been misrepresentations and-or fraud,” said Ron Rinaldi, ETP executive director. " . . .We are going to investigate this in full.”

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Rinaldi said Wednesday that he had ordered his agency to stop payment of the final $132,275 of state funds to the Zoological Society of San Diego under the contract, and had asked for a team of auditors to examine zoo records and interview keepers about the alleged fraud. At least two of the auditors will begin meeting with zookeepers Friday, he said.

Georgeanne Irvine, a spokeswoman for the society, said late Wednesday that the zoo had not been contacted by the ETP about the investigation, but that the nonprofit tourist attractions will cooperate fully.

“We feel we had a very good program, and we’re more than willing to cooperate with them on all issues and all areas,” she said.

News of the state investigation was welcomed by Michael Nester, a 17-year veteran zookeeper and president of the Teamsters Local 481, which represents the employees who went through the program.

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“I hope it’s a thorough investigation, and they try to talk to as many keepers as they can and the zoo allows,” Nester said.

The zoo contract is one of dozens awarded since 1982 by the ETP, which has given out nearly $63 million to companies willing to train employees threatened by out-of-state competition or changing technology. The agency’s goal is to reduce unemployment, and its money comes from the unemployment insurance premiums paid to the state by California firms.

In mid-1989, the ETP agreed to pay $621,600 for the retraining program at the Zoological Society of San Diego, which runs the world-famous zoo in Balboa Park and the 1,800-acre Wild Animal Park near Escondido. The classes were concluded in November, but the ETP has yet to make the final $132,275 payment on the contract.

The society proposed the retraining program because of plans to move away from the old-fashioned, single-animal exhibits and remake the tourist attractions into “bioclimatic zones” such as the Tiger River exhibit, where several species co-exist. The society argued that its entire keeper force faced the threat of layoffs if keepers weren’t retrained in such subjects as record-keeping, communication skills, animal nutrition and animal physiology.

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The contract called for the society and two subcontractors to receive $3,700 for each of the 168 animal keepers who completed a 37-week course consisting of 142 hours of classroom instruction and 332 hours of on-the-job training, called “Structured On-Site Training” exercises.

The so-called SOST exercises were to be documented, on-the-job tasks that proved the keepers were applying the new skills they learned in the classroom, ETP officials said. Failure to complete the SOST exercises would be a violation of the contract, they said.

But Times interviews with 15 current and former keepers, as well as a review of memos and letters, show that zoo administrators were warned early in the program about possible widespread fraud and abuse.

Many of the keepers contacted by The Times maintained that the program was only marginally helpful, and that they were often encouraged to falsify their SOST exercises, which averaged nine hours a week.

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Examples of the exercises, obtained by The Times, asked the keepers to sign work sheets verifying the number of hours they spent performing certain tasks. Some of the tasks included counting the number of fire extinguishers near their exhibits, cashing a personal check at the zoo or practicing behavior modification techniques on the animals.

Keepers said they were under pressure to fake the exercises because the activities would have cut into normal job routines if done correctly. Many said they simply signed the work sheets and wrote in a series of fake times to satisfy their supervisors, who warned that disciplinary action would be taken against those who didn’t finish the work.

“We were basically intimidated and threatened,” said Rick Schiller, a primate keeper since 1981. “We were constantly harassed and told that life was going to be made difficult for us if we didn’t do the homework. All we had to do was sign our name and date it.”

He said he finally signed off on assignments for work he never completed. “All of mine were turned in empty, not filled out,” he said.

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Constance M. Carson, a 16-year veteran keeper now in charge of the rhinoceroses, said she was also pressured by supervisors to falsify the SOST assignments.

“They asked us to lie on our homework,” she said. “I had to write down that I spent eight hours doing this and this and this, but I didn’t spend eight hours doing it. . . . As the course went on, we flat-out lied on those SOSTs.”

At one point, Carson said, her supervisors ordered her to complete 13 overdue SOST assignments, which called for dozens of hours of activities. She said she took the sheets to a nearby lunchtable, filled in a number of hours, signed her name and returned them the next day. She said no supervisor asked her how she could do so much work in so short a time.

Nester said he first notified zoo administrators about the potential widespread fraud when he and another Teamsters representative arranged a meeting last January about employee discontent over the homework assignments. He said he told the zoo that many of the keepers considered the assignments demeaning, and that they were under pressure to make up the answers and hours rather than take time from their normal duties during the day.

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Also attending the meeting was a representative from the Southern California Training Council, a nonprofit consortium hired by the Zoological Society to administer its retraining program. In a letter dated Jan. 9, 1990, to the participants in the meeting, the council representative confirmed that Nester told the group there was a “concerted effort to cut corners” on the homework assignments by “over 50% of the keeper population.”

Four months later, on April 13, Nester wrote to the training council representative to ask why there was no follow-up on his allegations about low employee morale and “the issue of abuse and fraud surrounding the SOST assignments.”

Officials from the zoo and the training council told The Times this week that they did not consider the allegations credible.

Zoo officials said their review of the allegations showed no improper actions by supervisors, and they attributed the allegations to longstanding disputes with the union and with a group of disgruntled keepers.

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“We did not contact the state on that because we did not think we had a serious problem,” said Diane Ledder, the zoo’s training administrator who was in charge of the zookeeper program. " . . . We had one person who had a vague idea of what was happening, but he couldn’t supply names of who was doing it.”

Ledder said that she asked the union for names of those falsifying the assignments, but that Nester refused to supply them. Instead of investigating further, Ledder said, she issued a series of memos to those in the training program clarifying how they should account for their time on the on-the-job assignments.

The memos themselves, however, may be a question in the ETP investigation. In a three-paragraph memo sent Sept. 10, 1990, Ledder advised employees with outstanding assignments that they could claim SOST credit just by thinking about their assignments.

“Please remember that you can call on any of your professional experiences and responsibilities during the last year to fulfill the requirements, and as we mentioned, that the thought, planning and evaluations processes all qualify for SOST hours,” Ledder wrote.

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“I hope that given these parameters, you will be able to complete the assignments in good conscience,” Ledder wrote. “As I said before, I would rather have no SOST hours (and no $) than results fraudulently obtained.”

Rinaldi said Wednesday that interpretation is unacceptable and could constitute a violation of the state contract.

In addition to potential fraud on the assignments, Nester and other keepers complained about other irregularities in the zoo’s proposal for the retraining money. They said the zoo misrepresented the keepers’ need for formal training, and they objected to its prediction that the entire force was “likely to be displaced and claiming unemployment insurance benefits” if not retrained.

“It’s a taxpayer rip-off is what it is,” said Robert D. Brock, a 16-year veteran keeper who works in the zoo’s Reptile House.

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“None of us were going to be fired,” said Brock, who holds college degrees in microbiology and geology. “There is nobody in the country better qualified to do what we do. . . . There are no better-equipped zoos. We’re it. If we were underachievers, then who would they find to take our place?”

A review of the program roster also shows that the zoo has received retraining payments from the state for three employees who are not officially keepers, but who work in Tiger River and other bioclimatic zones.

Rinaldi said Wednesday that payments for those employees could be disallowed, since the contract applies only to people who are formally classified as keepers.

The Times contacted the ETP with the allegations Tuesday, seeking a response. Rinaldi announced the investigation and funding suspension during an extensive interview Wednesday. He said the inquiry will include interviews with the zookeepers, as well as a thorough review of program documents.

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The ETP has paid the society nearly $500,000 under the contract, but the state can demand the money back if the allegations of fraud are upheld, he said.


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