The state paid more than $31,000 over an 11-month period for calls made on two cell phones missing from a state agency, according to a new report from state auditors.

In one case, officials noticed the phone misuse after just a few months–and $3,311 in bills–but apparent inter-agency miscommunication kept the phone from being shut off until another $15,505 in charges had been racked up.

“There was a failure to effectively cancel unused cell phones and effectively follow-up on suspected misuse,” the auditors wrote.

The first phone to be lost, issued to an employee in the commissioner’s office at the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, began being used illegally in September 2008, according to Auditors Robert G. Jaekle and Kevin P. Johnston.

Most of the calls were made to St. Lucia, an island country northwest of Barbados, according to documentation provided by the auditor’s office. Because the calls were made to an out-of-country number, the charge was $1.99 per minute, and calls lasted as long as 72 minutes.

Four monthly bills totaling $3,311 were paid before DMHAS officials, in January 2009, noted billings for numbers not in use and notified the Department of Information Technology, which oversees cell phones for the Executive Branch. The technology agency in turn instructed DMHAS officials to submit an online request to cancel the numbers.

“Believing that these numbers had already been canceled,” DMHAS officials did not submit the request, Principal Auditor Anthony Turko wrote in a memo to Jaekle and Johnston.

The back-and-forth between the agencies resumed in March 2009 when information technology officials noted that large bills continued to be received. According to Turko, DMHAS officials again urged the technology agency to cancel suspected missing phones, and the agency responded by urging DMHAS to file the appropriate forms.

Meanwhile, another $15,505 was paid out during the first seven months of 2009 to cover dozens more calls, bringing the total value of fraudulent calls on this lost phone to $18,818.

In July 2009, according to the auditors, the DMHAS official who first reported the missing cell phone died, and the DOIT staffer following up on cell phone abuse retired. Four months later, different employees at both agencies would ensure the phone was canceled and the matter was reported to the police, according to the auditors.

The second instance of abuse cited by the auditors involved a phone assigned to an employee at Connecticut Mental Health Center, a facility under DMHAS jurisdiction.

Cell phone bills totaling $12,835 were paid between December 2008 and April 2009. Though the phone was reported lost, as required by state law, the report wasn’t made until Jan. 27, 2010, according to the auditors.

The phone had been assigned to Yale University researcher assisting the center, and had somehow been lost after an office manager had attempted to recollect phones assigned temporarily to researchers and to center employees, according to auditors’ records.

The auditors’ office did not have details of the second phone’s misuse available Monday, and DMHAS spokesman Steve DiLella declined elaborate on the cases.

In the midst of the cell phone abuse, Gov. M. Jodi Rell issued a directive to state agencies trying to crack down on soaring cell phone expenses. Cellular bills for the Executive Branch nearly doubled between 2006 and 2009, according to DOIT records, jumping from $2.6 million to $5.1 million.

DOIT spokeswoman Nuala Whelton said the increases were driven largely by an administration initiative to improve state government’s readiness to respond to and function amid a variety of disaster-level emergencies. But DOIT also had been warning state officials for years that its ability to manage telecommunications expenses was compromised and that it needed more money and staff to adequately monitor the system.

The money was not forthcoming, but DOIT was directed to make improvements with existing staff.

Rell announced to all agencies in February 2009 that they had 30 business days “to cancel all unnecessary cellular phone and wireless services and (ordering) a freeze on any new cellular services except in urgent or emergency cases.”

“Like any family on a budget, we are going to have to cut back – fewer phones, cheaper calling plans and less airtime,” Rell said at that time. “We will not compromise agency missions or put ourselves in jeopardy in the event of a disaster. But taxpayers deserve to know we are not spending their money on pricey cell services they themselves cannot afford.”

In response to the audit, DMHAS officials wrote that staff reassignments have been made to strengthen monitoring of cell phone usage, all invoices are submitted to employees and their supervisors for review, and departmental budget staff are notified of any invoices exceeding $100.

“We agree with the auditors and things are much more efficient now,” DiLella added.

“Stronger controls were needed and they have been put in place,” Rell spokesman Adam Liegeot said Monday.

Whelton added the administration has reversed the rising costs cell phone use since those incidents. “We have made considerable progress in reducing cellular telephone incidents in the past 18 months,” she said.

More than 1,000 cell phones have been canceled and another 3,000 have been placed on new, cheaper calling plans, Whelton said, adding the annual savings is $1.9 million.

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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