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Taxpayers pick up living expenses for Workforce director

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Claudia D. George gets more perks than most state employees - far more.

Workforce West Virginia picks up the cost of George's weekly 376-mile commute from her home in Fairmont to her office at the state Capitol Complex in Charleston. The state agency, whose employment programs are funded by the federal government, also pays George $51 a day for meals, and $100 a day for a hotel room at the Holiday Inn & Suites in Charleston.

In other words, she comes to work, stays the week, eats free, and returns home on weekends. All free of charge. All at taxpayer expense.

George has had the special arrangement since 2010, even though it's listed as a "temporary assignment." She's accumulated $78,000 in expenses. Her bosses at Workforce West Virginia approved the travel expenses and job assignment.

George, an assistant director at Workforce West Virginia who oversees 21 field offices, also gets a $62,640 salary.

On at least three occasions, mid-level managers at Workforce West Virginia have alerted their superiors and the state auditor's office about George's job perks, but nothing was done, according to memos filed with the state auditor's office. 

"This is FRAUD, and misspending of state funds," wrote a Workforce West Virginia employee who reviews George's expenses.

Another employee commented to state officials, "I think it's unjust that an employee is paid to commute 138 miles each way to work each and every week, and get paid mileage, lodging, and meals while here. That is 100 percent expenses paid plus salary."

On Tuesday, Workforce West Virginia officials said George's "temporary assignment" and commuting and living expense reimbursements would end this Friday.

"On Feb. 1., Ms. George will become acting director of field operations for Workforce West Virginia, and her official duty station for that position will be Charleston, so her travel expenses will be altered," said Russell Fry, the agency's acting executive director, in a prepared statement. 

Workforce West Virginia officials said George, a 38-year state employee, initially oversaw only the agency's field offices in northern West Virginia. But the southern West Virginia field office director resigned, and George took over all 21 regional offices in October 2010.

Fry said George has traveled from Fairmont to other locations outside Charleston.

"All documentation of her travel expenses have been filed with the West Virginia State Auditor in accordance with state regulations," Fry said.

The agency posted the job opening for the southern West Virginia field office position, interviewed three candidates and selected George for the job, Fry said. George kept her duties in northern West Virginia.

Fry said George's special assignment saved the state money.

"The statewide travel expenses for the position are less expensive than hiring a second assistant director," he said.  

Fry said he wasn't aware that agency employees had complained until Tuesday, after the Gazette notified Workforce West Virginia about the complaint letters on file with the auditor's office.

"I have not received complaints from employees about Ms. George's travel," Fry said.

A Workforce West Virginia employee first complained about George in March 2011, records show. The employee also called state Auditor Glen Gainer's office, which issues payments to reimburse state employee travel.

In response, a Workforce West Virginia administrator directed the agency employee to circumvent state travel regulations, the worker alleged in her letter to Gainer's office. George's headquarters office was changed on March 28, 2011, from Charleston to Fairmont, where George lives, even though she does not work in Fairmont.

The change prevented the auditor's office from denying George's reimbursement requests. On paper, at least, George worked in Fairmont, so the state could pick up her travel to Charleston.

"I have to process these payments, as instructed ..." the Workforce West Virginia employee wrote. "Changing headquarters to Fairmont only makes it look good on paper. This is an every week occurrence, not just a once-in-a-while trip to headquarters."

On Jan. 7, a Workforce West Virginia employee - it's not clear if it was the same person who raised questions about George in 2011 - determined that George had inflated her mileage by 10 miles each way from Fairmont to Charleston. The employee, who claimed to review travel expenses at the agency, subtracted $22 a week from George's mileage reimbursement.

But that apparently didn't sit well with the higher-ups at Workforce West Virginia.

"I was instructed to 'change it back,'" the Workforce West Virginia employee wrote to auditors. "Because of who this person is (I don't know what her value is), the mileage adjustment was not permitted..."

The state subsequently reimbursed George for the extra mileage previously deducted.

The Gazette tried to contact George Tuesday. The state phone directory lists a number for George at Workforce West Virginia's Fairmont office.

However, the agency's office manager told the Gazette, "Claudia is actually stationed at our Charleston office."

The Gazette left phone and email messages for George on Tuesday, but she did not respond to a request for comment.

Workforce West Virginia, which receives funds from the U.S. Department of Labor, picks up George's $100-a-night stay at the Holiday Inn from Monday through Thursday. She leaves the Charleston office and spends Friday night at home in Fairmont, travel records show. The state agency also pays $51 a day for George's meals Tuesday to Thursday, and $38.25 a day on Mondays and Fridays.

Workforce West Virginia Finance Director Brock Jarrett, who submitted George's travel forms to the state auditor's office, did not return phone and email messages seeking comment Tuesday.

George isn't the only state official whose travel has been questioned in recent months.

Last year, the acting chief of the state Department of Health and Human Resources collected more than $3,000 to commute from near home in Clarksburg to Charleston. A DHHR spokeswoman said Rocco Fucillo was reimbursed for travel from the agency's White Hall office to Charleston. DHHR is headquartered in downtown Charleston.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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