Of 133 hotels that did have pertinent records, six hotel records matched the reimbursement requests in question. Nearly 90 percent of the hotels that provided records to the state auditor had no evidence corroborating the employee's stay during the dates for which he claimed travel.
Both Utah Auditor John Dougall and the DEQ director declined to provide the inspector's name, although Matheson said it was a longtime agency employee who retired immediately after being questioned about the invoices.
State computer records indicated the employee was actually in Mesquite, Nev., or on the Wasatch Front when the reimbursement requests suggested otherwise, Dougall said.
On at least nine occasions, he said, the employee claimed to have conducted inspections for which the Division of Water Quality had no records.
The auditor said the falsified invoices included details such as hotel logos, making the fraud difficult to detect. He warned that as computer software makes more sophisticated forgeries possible, employers must be increasingly vigilant.
"It can be hard when folks are traveling," the auditor said, "but it is critical to know what they're doing and who they're meeting with so you can follow up and ensure that meeting really took place."
Matheson said his department noticed something was amiss in late 2016 when officials discovered an invoice that included a charge with no identified purpose. A conversation with employees at the hotel uncovered more discrepancies, which prompted the DEQ to review other travel requests. The agency later asked the state auditor and an independent auditor for help.
"It was particularly frustrating," he said, "because we have so many very, very good employees who come out and work hard for the state every day, and when one of them violates the public trust, it really is an affront to everyone else who works here."
Matheson said there are no indications other employees were involved. The matter has been turned over to Utah attorney general, he said, and the DEQ is "encouraging action to recoup what was lost to the public."
"You want to be able to trust the people that work with you," the agency director said, "but with that trust there is still a need for vigilance, to make sure that public monies are used well."