More than half a million dollars meant for a cancer research unit at a Perth hospital has been claimed in overtime and annual leave payments by a former manager despite hospital records showing she was often not entitled to the money, WA’s corruption watchdog has found.
In a report tabled in State Parliament, the Corruption and Crime Commission (CCC) formed two opinions of serious misconduct against Judith Innes-Rowe, a clinical trials manager at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital for 23 years.
CCC Commissioner John McKechnie said funding for the clinical trials unit came from pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies and clinical research organisations, and was to be used for cancer clinical trials.
“Some of that money sadly, obviously hasn’t been used for clinical trials, but been taken in overtime,” he said.
The report found systemic weaknesses in a 30-year-old payroll system at the WA Health Department, along with a “lack of appropriate managerial vigilance”, allowed Ms Innes-Rowe to bypass normal authorisations.
It said this was an ongoing risk and the system needed to be updated as a priority to help prevent fraudulent claims and protect the department’s $4.3 billion payroll.
The report said Ms Innes-Rowe had claimed $508,413.35 in overtime between July 2012 and November 2017.
“Some of it appeared to constitute a benefit to which she may not have been entitled,” the report said.
It concluded she had effectively entered the signature of consultant clinical oncologist Professor Michael Millward, to whom she reported, on overtime claim forms.
Professor Millward told the CCC he “wouldn’t regularly look at them”.
“The claims were effectively approved by his inaction,” the report said.
‘Overtime’ claimed when not at work
Records analysed by the corruption watchdog revealed many occasions when Ms Innes-Rowe claimed to be working overtime but was apparently not at the hospital.
According to the report, that included 14 weekend days when she claimed overtime at double-time rates when there was no evidence of her being at the hospital.
This alone cost $16,000 in funding provided to the cancer unit.
The CCC also found over a five-year period, records showed she was absent for 125 days without submitting an annual leave form.
During a three-week period in July and August 2012, there was no evidence Ms Innes-Rowe was at work and she did not submit a leave form.
It said during a three-year period she only submitted one day of annual leave, but records showed she went to visit family in New Zealand three times on non-work related trips.
Yet when her employment with the North Metropolitan Health Service (NMHS) ended in December 2018, she was paid out about $65,000 in lieu of annual leave as part of what the CCC said was a “false final payout”.
In November 2017, changes to the overtime claims system meant a higher level of authorisation was required and Ms Innes-Rowe stopped claiming overtime at that point.
Re-hired despite conduct concerns
Despite two internal NMHS reports recommending disciplinary action against Ms Innes-Rowe, she was re-hired through a recruitment agency in January 2019.
“How that happens, I have no idea,” Mr McKechnie said.
NMHS said she was let go immediately after being re-hired, because she had effectively retired when she had left the month before, and it would have been inappropriate to take her back on.
Mr McKechnie suggested a central register could be established so people being considered for a job could be checked against any outstanding allegations.
He said the unsubstantiated claims should never have happened “but the concern is whether the same systems are in place that can allow it to continue to happen to other people”.
Health Support Services, which runs the payroll for WA Health’s 52,000 employees, is currently preparing a business case to replace its payroll and rostering systems.
“Without implementation of a new smart electronic payroll and rostering platform, employees may continue to bypass the controls in place to gain benefits to which they are not entitled,” the report said.
NMHS said it would try to recoup the funds that had been provided to Ms Innes-Rowe.