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Originally published March 1, 2012 at 8:35 PM | Page modified March 1, 2012 at 8:42 PM

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Ex-city worker fined $1,500 for adjusting her utility bills 71 times

A former Seattle Public Utilities employee has been fined $1,500 for accessing her own account and repeatedly adjusting her utility bill.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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She claims ignorance for not knowing she should not be adjusting her own bill? Don't... MORE
And in other news, Carol Widhalm still on full city pension. More at 11! MORE
the mullet... my GOD the mullet ! MORE

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A former Seattle Public Utilities employee has been fined $1,500 for accessing her own account and repeatedly adjusting her utility bill.

Carol Widhalm, a 29-year SPU employee, retired in August, a month after being questioned by utility officials.

An internal investigation found she had made 71 adjustments to her account between 2002 and 2010, including 50 payment arrangements that allowed her to defer paying her utility bill and avoid credit and shut-off action, according to internal investigation records obtained by The Seattle Times.

Widhalm filed for personal bankruptcy in March 2008.

An SPU official called her actions egregious and said had not Widhalm retired, she would have been recommended for termination, according to the records.

A separate investigation by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission released Thursday found that Widhalm used her position for personal gain, in violation of city ethics rules. That investigation looked only at transactions between 2008 and 2010.

Widhalm has agreed to pay a $1,500 settlement. The commission will vote Wednesday on whether to accept the agreement.

"This makes me feel really bad. I worked almost 30 years. I was a good employee. I messed up without knowing it was that serious," Widhalm said.

An ongoing investigation into SPU workers improperly accessing their own accounts has resulted in five being fired and another disciplined. All worked in the customer-service call center, which handles billing for Seattle City Light and SPU.

One of the fired employees was a supervisor. No criminal charges have been filed.

In some cases, the disciplined employees said they were unaware of city ethics rules that prohibited them from acting on matters in which they had a personal financial interest.

But the employees also acknowledged to investigators that they knew they shouldn't be fixing their own utility bills, according to the SPU investigation records.

When Widhalm was shown screen shots of her improper transactions, she told SPU investigators, "I can't deny it. That's me. Naughty girl."

The utility estimates the net loss to date at about $440. One worker repaid about $1,050, said SPU spokesman Andy Ryan. He said about 170 employees have access to customer accounts, but not all can make monetary adjustments.

SPU Director Ray Hoffman said the utility is continuing to examine billing records dating back 10 years and will discipline any employees found to have improperly adjusted their own bills.

Additionally, the utility has taken several measures to bolster its internal controls and limit the number of people with access to customer accounts.

SPU officials have stepped up monitoring and review of account adjustments, have required customer-service representatives to sign a confidentiality agreement that includes an ethics statement, and have asked the city auditor to review the utilities' billing safeguards and to identify problem areas.

In the current case, Widhalm had worked her entire career in customer service. She earned $63,564 in 2010, according to city records.

An investigator for SPU interviewed Widhalm after the irregularities were identified and concluded she had a "very good understanding" of payment policies and procedures that allow customers behind on their bills to arrange payment plans, provided all the scheduled payments are made on time.

The investigator found that Widhalm had made 50 payment arrangements for herself over eight years and concluded, "The analysis shows a poor payment track record and an egregious abuse of the payment arrangement policy."

Widhalm's job before she retired was to process bankruptcy filings and submit documentation to the utility regarding eventual write-off of outstanding balances.

Although a judge had approved her personal bankruptcy, the Ethics Commission investigation notes she should not have handled her own bankruptcy write-off.

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or lthompson@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @lthompsontimes.

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