Why A Volunteer for DSHS Was Paid $10,000

Jun 23, 2014

Longtime foster youth Andre Fayette poses with his foster mother Mary-Jeanne Smith. For five years, a volunteer driver for the Washington Department of Social and Health Services shuttled Andre to visits with his biological sisters in Spokane.
Credit Photo courtesy: Mary-Jeanne Smith

Imagine driving your personal car for work so much that your boss cuts you a $10,000 mileage reimbursement check. That’s what happened recently at Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services. Only the person who got the check isn’t an employee. And she’s not the only one who’s logging high miles and collecting large reimbursements from DSHS. Who are these road warriors? Austin Jenkins finds out.

The payment was for $10,672. It was issued to Lavaughn Nuner last September, according to Washington’s Open Checkbook website. Who is Lavaughn Nuner? And more importantly, why did she drive nearly 19,000 miles over four months in her personal car at state expense?

To find out, I called her. After a round of telephone tag and an exchange of text messages, Nuner stopped responding to my requests for an interview. I did, however, obtain her travel records from the state. Based on those records, our analysis shows over the past decade Nuner has requested roughly $300,000 dollars in mileage reimbursements. Plus, another $35,000 per diem. Neither Nuner nor the agency would confirm these numbers. So who is Lavaughn Nuner?

Connie Lambert-Eckel: “I’m very aware that Lavaughn is a very longstanding provider.”

That’s Connie Lambert-Eckel with Washington’s DSHS. She says Nuner is a volunteer in the Spokane office who drives foster youth to court-ordered services. These could be visits with their biological parents or counseling sessions.  Nuner is one of several DSHS volunteer drivers who log tens-of-thousands of miles shuttling youth across the vast expanses of eastern Washington.

Let’s consider just one day in Lavaughn Nuner’s volunteer life. March 5, 2012. Records show the day started at 7 a.m. at Nuner’s home in Medical Lake near Spokane. And this was her itinerary: Medical Lake to Colbert, Washington. Colbert to Cheney. Cheney to Spokane. Spokane to Chewelah roundtrip. Spokane to Chattaroy round trip. Spokane back to Chewelah. And finally Chewelah home to Medical Lake. It was 7:45 in the evening – nearly 13 hours and more than 300 miles later.

Now, this was an epic day. But a 2012 internal audit of the volunteer driver program found “some volunteers frequently drove in excess of” eight hours a day – increasing the risk of an accident. One unidentified volunteer exceeded eight hours of driving 80 percent of the time. The audit resulted in a crackdown of sorts. Today, volunteer drivers are capped at eight hours behind the wheel per day. They also no longer qualify for per diem. Even so, these volunteers continue to rack up the miles. Records show in the first nine months of the fiscal year, the top three drivers for DSHS have already been reimbursed more than $20,000 each.

This screenshot of Washington’s Open Checkbook shows the mileage reimbursements paid to volunteer driver Lavaughn Nuner in the first nine months of the current fiscal year.
Credit fiscal WA gov

Connie Lambert-Eckel: “And that’s a lot.”

Again, the agency’s Connie Lambert-Eckel.

Connie Lambert-Eckel: “That’s a lot of driving. And that’s the need.”
Lambert-Eckel says she’d like to have more volunteers. But they’re hard to recruit. So the trips fall to the hard core drivers who are willing to log a lot of miles.

Connie Lambert-Eckel: “They’re just generous of heart and spirit in an effort to help us serve kids and their families’ needs as effectively as we can.”

But has this volunteer program morphed into something else? Jason Mercier is with the Washington Policy Center, a right-of-center think tank that watchdogs government spending.

Jason Mercier: “When you see reimbursements at the level that you can buy a brand new car, the spirit of being a volunteer comes into question.”

Indeed, the audit in 2012 raised questions about the integrity of the program. It found some volunteer drivers changed schedules without agency approval. Internal emails reveal there was even a term for this: “selling a run,” even though no money was actually exchanged. DSHS says drivers now have to get approval to change schedules. We attempted to contact several high-miles volunteer drivers for this story. One longtime driver said she considers it a part-time job and the tax-free reimbursements help supplement her social security. But this driver also said it’s not just about the money. It’s about the kids. Only one couple agreed to speak on the record.

Anna Meigs: “Kenny’s a safe, safe driver.”
Anna and Ken Meigs are former foster parents in the Tri-Cities. They volunteered to drive a decade ago after they both retired. In a typical month they say they cover three-to-six-thousand miles. They’ve gone as far as Wyoming.

Ken Meigs: “We just traded off, a year ago, our 1996 Toyota Camry that had almost 500,000 miles on it.”

Anna says over the years they’ve had their share of adventures

Anna Meigs: “Oh my.”

Like the time a pregnant teen ran from them at a rest stop. Last winter, they hit black ice and spun off the road. Even so, they see volunteer driving as a win-win.

Ken Meigs: “I just like to drive and we get to see a lot of country. And this way we get paid our mileage, we have a volunteer value for the state, a lot of times it saves the caseworker taking a state car, their time, driving the person over.”

Strong bonds can be forged during those long hours in the car. Just ask Andre Fayette.

Andre Fayette: “I’ve been in foster care in Washington state for about eight years.”

Andre says once-a-month for several of those years the same volunteer driver took him to see his biological sisters. It was a four-hour round trip.

Andre Fayette: “When you spend a lot of your life in foster care, you don’t have too many stable, adult relationships with people. So it was nice having someone stable that you could just talk to on a regular basis.”

Andre came to consider his driver like an aunt. He even invited her to his high school graduation. So far this fiscal year, Washington’s DSHS has reimbursed volunteer drivers more than $300,000.

We checked with Idaho and Oregon. Idaho doesn’t rely on volunteer drivers. Oregon does use volunteers as a supplement to paid staff, but they are encouraged to use state motor pool vehicles. We asked Washington’s DSHS about that option – or even renting cars. The agency says it has not analyzed either of those alternatives.

Copyright Northwest News Network