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Virginia DOT detects misuses of state computers

Agency chief warns of discpline if abuse continues

By Peter Bacque
Richmond Times-Dispatch

RICHMOND, VA. – An internal investigation at the Virginia Department of Transportation has turned up as many as 44 employees wasting taxpayer-paid work time on the Internet.

"If there is any . . . confirmed additional abuse, we will discipline those individuals consistent with the discipline that we issued back in 2002," state Transportation Commissioner Philip Shucet said yesterday.

The Internet browsing took in a range of Web sites, including some devoted to shopping, sports and airlines, and "although limited, it also did include some sexually explicit sites," Shucet said.

Five VDOT computers were used to visit porn sites, he said.

In 2002, VDOT fired or suspended for two weeks without pay 86 workers for misuse of their Internet access on workplace computers.

Authorities said that action was the largest mass disciplining of state employees in Virginia government history.

Shucet has directed VDOT managers to check the latest audit's findings in their offices to confirm the infractions and give employees a chance to defend themselves.

The commissioner told VDOT managers to complete those checks by Friday and report how they disciplined workers who they confirmed had abused their Internet access.

Since managers are responsible for overseeing their employees' work, Shucet said he might also want to have earnest chats with managers involved in the latest Internet imbroglio.

The $3.7 billion VDOT has about 8,000 computers and more than 10,200 employees.

In this investigation, department auditors first focused on VDOT computers showing 10,000 or more Web site hits a day, the agency said.

Workers will be disciplined for spending two hours or more on one day viewing Web sites that were not related to their work, VDOT said.

The state permits employees to make incidental, occasional personal use of government computers, but only if that use does not interfere with performing their work.

Virginia's policy on Internet use also forbids government employees to view pornography sites with state computers.

Penalties for those making unauthorized use of their taxpayer-supplied computers range from two weeks' suspension without pay to loss of their jobs.

Conducted July 21-27, the computer-abuse sweep rounded up about half the number of VDOT workers caught in a similar investigation made public 16 months ago.

"The results are better than in 2002," VDOT spokeswoman Tamara Neale said, "but we would prefer zero abuse."

VDOT discovered the new Internet access issue during what Shucet described as a "follow-up audit that we always planned on doing."

The VDOT inspector general's office has sent reports of the apparent abuse to the affected transportation districts and staff divisions so managers can review the results and "make sure there weren't any anomalies," Shucet said.

After the 2002 investigation, VDOT fired 15 workers and two resigned for using their computer access to look at pornography.

VDOT suspended another 61 for two weeks without pay for spending two hours or more in a day looking at Web sites unrelated to their work.

VDOT also fired eight contract workers for excessive Internet use in the 2002 crackdown.