State May Ask Zoo to Return Over $500,000 : Audit: Widespread discrepancies uncovered in job-training program.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The San Diego Zoological Society could be forced to refund more than $500,000 to the state because it cannot account for hundreds of hours of training it was supposed to give zookeepers under a state-sponsored program, according to an audit released Friday.

The audit, conducted for the state's Employment Training Panel, also found that the zoo submitted time sheets that showed 27 employees performed on-the-job training exercises when they were actually on vacation or sick leave. In addition, the society collected more than $40,000 for 11 groundskeepers and other employees who were not supposed to take the course, the report says.

Zoo officials blame the record-keeping discrepancies on "clerical errors" committed by the zookeepers themselves while filling out forms for the state-sponsored training program.

But officials with the training panel said the problems with the zoological society's handling of the job-training class are of a greater "magnitude" than uncovered by similar audits.

They say it is now up to zoo officials to prove how much, if any, it should keep of the $536,500 in state money it has received to put its keepers through retraining classes and exercises performed at the Zoo and Wild Animal Park.

"Basically, now the burden shifts to them to demonstrate, on a case-by-case basis, that each person completed the whole program," said Ronald Rinaldi, the training panel's executive director.

Spokesman Jeff Jouett said zoo officials will "do what we need to do verify that the program was conducted properly.

"We are confident that the ETP will understand and accept our explanations," Jouett said. "We didn't expect auditors to make allowances for the unique demands of a keeper's job. We don't think there's any widespread falsification."

The Employment Training Panel, a relatively obscure state agency, gives out millions of dollars each year to companies and private concerns willing to retrain employees threatened by out-of-state competition or changing technology. The grants come from the state's unemployment fund, collected from California companies.

In mid-1989, the panel approved a grant to the zoo to create a 37-week retraining class for keepers at the Balboa Park attraction and the 1,800-acre Wild Animal Park near Escondido.

The course was necessary, zoo officials said, to prepare the keepers for a new era in which animals are mingled in "bioclimatic zones" such as Tiger River, rather than kept in single-species exhibits. Without the retraining, they said, all the keepers could lose their jobs.

The training panel agreed to pay the society and two subcontractors $3,700 for each of the keepers who took the course in 1989 and 1990. The course consisted of 142 hours of classroom instruction and 332 hours of on-the-job training exercises, called "Structured On-Site Training." The exercises are considered an integral part of any ETP program and are supposed to be supervised.

But the training panel suspended payments to the zoo and ordered an exhaustive audit in January after several current and former keepers told The Times they were encouraged--and in some cases coerced--to falsify their hours for on-the-job exercises.

The keepers also complained that the courses were only marginally helpful, and in some cases required such simple exercises as counting fire extinguishers and cashing personal checks. Zoo officials said the complaints came from disgruntled employees.

Panel attorney Peter DeMauro said Friday that state auditors found only a few keepers who admitted to falsifying records.

"Five or six of the people we talked to said, 'Yeah, we were told to make up records,' " DeMauro said. "I met with the zoo. The zoo denies that."

The bigger problem, Friday's report says, is record-keeping so unreliable that audits purportedly show the zoo failed to live up the terms of its contract. The report raised the issue of whether the state should demand refund of the zoo's entire $621,600 grant--$536,500 of which has already been paid.

"We recommend $621,600 of costs be questioned," the auditors wrote. "If the (zoo) cannot provide evidence to support that the training was provided in accordance with the terms of the agreement, we recommend that ETP recover the cost."

The reason the entire grant is now questionable, auditors said, is because the zoo was unable to substantiate hundreds of hours of on-the-job training exercises that keepers supposedly performed.

According to the training panel's time sheets, 160 keepers recorded enough training exercises on certain days that they should have been working overtime. But a check of the zoo's payroll showed 329 instances in which these keepers never logged one or several hours of indicated overtime.

Another problem was that 27 keepers turned in time sheets showing they were performing on-the-job training exercises when they actually had the day off, were sick or on vacation. Another 24 put in time sheets showing they performed the exercises at conflicting times on the same day.

"It's not unusual to find problems with SOST," DeMauro said about the on-the-job exercises. "It's uncommon to find them in this magnitude."

Whether the state agency will eventually ask for all the money is still an open question, added Rinaldi, DeMauro's boss. Although the auditors questioned the entire amount, and the zoo wants to keep all the money, the training panel probably will ask for "something in between."

"The only way to sort this out is that the zoo is going to have to sit with us and go over, on an employee-by-employee basis, to see what happened," said Rinaldi, adding that the painstaking process probably will take some time.

In a written response contained in the audit, the zoo contended that it would be an "egregious mistake" for the training panel to ask for all of the money back.

Even if the agency does not get a full refund, the auditors strongly recommended it recover some money from the zoo. Their other findings were:

The zoo should refund $88,800 for 24 trainees who failed to show up at class or perform the training at least 80% of the time. The contract said such high absenteeism is unacceptable.

The zoo should forfeit an additional $40,700 because 11 people who took the course were not even zookeepers. Instead, they were animal health technicians, groundskeepers or maintenance employees--people who were not eligible under the contract.

In its written response, the zoo blamed the discrepancies on the fact that zookeepers, by the very nature of their jobs, couldn't keep an exact accounting on when they performed on-the-job training. They made mistakes and "clerical errors" because they were forced to approximate their hours.

"The nature of keepers' work prevents them from carrying the documents out to the work site," the zoo wrote. "When working around animals, it is considered an unsafe practice to carry any foreign objects such as pens, pencils or paper . . . that could distract or otherwise encumber a keeper when working around dangerous or nervous animals."

Jouett also said the training panel gave the zoo no warning that there were problems with the record-keeping, despite a number of monitoring visits when the classes were offered.

"They were here on several occasions . . . and they gave it glowing reviews," Jouett said. "So, if there were problems then in the documentation process, if controls needed to be implemented . . . they sure didn't tell us about it."

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