🔵 An NJ agency sites fraud and abuse in a county's COVID vaccine program

🔵 The report says there was no proper system to keep track of 800 workers

🔵 The report says a vendor was overpaid by $110,000 and still owes it back

An anonymous tip led a New Jersey government agency down a path that uncovered alleged waste and abuse in Essex County's COVID-19 vaccination program.

The Office of the State Comptroller on Tuesday announced that the $40 million program, which was funded with federal COVID dollars, was riddled with deficiencies and violations as it administered more than 620,000 doses of coronavirus protection from December 2020 through August 2023.

According to the report, Essex County spent $17 million on program staffing but failed to implement systems to verify that the workers were working the hours they logged.

Even after three workers were dismissed for false logs, officials did not change the timekeeping system to close the loophole, or launch an investigation into other possible cases of abuse, the report says.

One worker was paid more than $130,000 over 11 months and Essex County doesn't know who that person was or what that person did, the report says. And many individuals on the payroll were working full-time jobs while working the same hours for the vaccination program.

In addition, the report states, the county classified program workers as independent contractors, which meant that the county did not pay into unemployment funds or provide any benefits for the workers.

Bad habits with vendors

During its administration of the vaccine program, Essex County improperly awarded millions of dollars to vendors as emergency contracts, bypassing the competitive bidding process, the report says. In several instances, Essex County improperly used multi-year "emergency" contracts, the report says.

And the county's oversight of vendors was careless, the report suggests. Fifteen payments amounting to $871,211 were made to vendors without invoices, according to the OSC investigation.

According to the report, Essex County paid a consulting firm the same $110,000 fee twice in 2021 for their robocall services. Instead of demanding immediate repayment of the federal funds, Essex County negotiated a repayment plan that allowed the firm to pay less than the full amount across five years.

"The government's obligation to protect taxpayer funds doesn't go away during an emergency," said Acting State Comptroller Kevin Walsh. "As we found in Essex County, overusing emergency contacts and failing to monitor vendors and implement basic financial controls increases the likelihood of fraud, waste, and abuse — risks that can and should be avoided."

Essex County's response

In its report, OSC recommended that Essex County utilize all avenues to recover the duplicative payment of $110,000, and conduct a comprehensive internal review of the vaccination program and create an action plan for OSC and the public.

In its written response to OSC, Essex County took issue with the report's conclusion that it overused the emergency procurement method for contracts.

The county noted that the vendor that was paid double is already in the repayment process. According to OSC, the negotiation wasn't finalized until February 2024, more than six months after the date OSC informed Essex County of the improper overpayment.

Essex County told OSC that its timekeeping system "was not fool-proof," but said the county had an additional control in place — a site supervisor.

"This is an ineffective control," OSC said in its report.

Report a correction 👈 | 👉 Contact our newsroom

The 10 Biggest Problems NJ Faces, According to Reddit Users

Reddit users named these the biggest problems that New Jersey Faces. Do you agree?

Gallery Credit: Diana Tyler

15 US Cities You Can't Afford In 5 Years + The most expensive in NJ as of now

According to Financebuzz.com, you're not going to be able to afford these 15 cities in 5 years across the US. Plus a look at 5 of New Jersey's least affordable places today.

Gallery Credit: Kyle Matthews, Mike Brant

More From 94.3 The Point