Delaware nonprofit calls for oversight hearings into theft of taxpayer funds by former state worker

WHYY News revealed the embezzlement of taxpayer money from the unemployment trust fund in 2023 after receiving a tip about the theft.

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Delaware State Capitol Building in Dover. (Paul Brady/Bigstock)

Delaware state Capitol building in Dover. (Paul Brady/Bigstock)

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The Delaware Coalition for Open Government (DelCOG) is calling on the General Assembly to hold oversight hearings into why the state never disclosed that a former state worker stole more than $181,000 from the unemployment insurance trust fund in 2023. They also accused two state agencies of violating the law by not including the information in recent reports.

The state did not reveal the theft publicly until officials were contacted by WHYY News, following a tip that money had been stolen from the trust fund.

After being contacted by WHYY News, the state’s Department of Labor acknowledged that former unemployment insurance administrator Michael Brittingham stole the money last year. Brittingham took his own life in April 2023 shortly after he was told he was under investigation.

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The Auditor of Accounts and the Division of Accounting, which is under the Department of Finance, put out a few audit reports earlier this year. Those included the annual comprehensive financial report for Fiscal Year 2023, a special report explaining why the unemployment insurance trust fund was “unauditable” for FY 23, and an audit of federal assistance programs. None of them mentioned the embezzlement.

DelCOG board member John Flaherty said lawmakers have the power to hold oversight hearings.

“They do that for the budget requests,” he said. “The Joint Finance Committee, they can hold oversight hearings and bring in the public officials responsible to make sure that this breach of money of the unemployment insurance is not going to happen again.”

“It’s something that probably can be done,” Senate President Pro Tempore David Sokola said. “But it’s certainly not going to be done in June.”

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June is typically the most crowded month on the legislative calendar in Dover, as lawmakers must finish up their work for the year by June 30.

But Sokola added he didn’t think the General Assembly was the best venue to conduct oversight hearings. He cited the investigations the body did involving former Auditor Kathy McGuiness, currently a candidate for state House, as an example.

The nonprofit group also accused the AOA and Division of Accounting of violating Delaware code by not revealing the stolen funds in their reports.

Flaherty said there’s a number of citations in the state code where it says they have an obligation to inform the public in a timely manner. The failure to disclose the embezzlement is a breach of the public’s trust, he said.

“If they’re not going to disclose what actions they’re taking in cases like this then there’s no opportunity for people to observe and to make a judgment on their own whether in fact our public officials are acting in the public interest or not in the public interest.”

Director of Finance Rick Geisenberger did not reply to a request for comment. A spokesperson for Auditor Lydia York said all of her audit reports are compiled according to state code, and subsequent reports on the unemployment compensation fund will include “any relevant disclosures” after the fund is able to be auditable.

Sokola said DelCOG and others were advocating for state Sen. Laura Sturgeon’s legislation that would create an independent inspector general’s office. That office would be charged with investigating state agencies, and the General Assembly, when there’s an allegation of waste, fraud, abuse or corruption. Under the legislation, the inspector general would hire a staff of 10 and would be required to be certified in investigation, auditing or evaluation within three years.

Sokola said he supported the idea of an inspector general, but implied a lack of support for the concept from outgoing Gov. John Carney.

“I’d really like to see it done with a governor who wants it done,” he said. “Because the easy thing is sometimes passing a bill, the implementation with fidelity, and all the details that go into that — that’s the important part. And when you’re asking people to implement something that they really didn’t advocate for, you might not be getting a good deal.”

A spokesperson for Carney would not say if he supported Sturgeon’s legislation. The Joint Finance Committee marked up the budget this week and the bill had not been funded in the budget plan.

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