WA state worker accused of misappropriating $900K had earlier bankruptcies

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OLYMPIA — A state worker accused of taking nearly $900,000 in public money had earlier declared bankruptcy four times, public records show.

Matthew R. Ping abused his job as a management analyst for Washington’s Office of Administrative Hearings by using an agency credit card to pay large sums of money to businesses he created in his name, according to a state audit released last week.

Ping, 48, who had worked for the agency since 2009, was not named in the audit report, but his identity was confirmed by the auditor’s office.

Ping has not been charged with a crime. The Olympia Police Department is investigating now that the audit has concluded.

Public records paint a picture of a man repeatedly swallowed by ballooning debts. And they point to a potential motivation — gambling at a casino — for what the auditor found to be a yearslong scheme of shifting public money to himself, enabled by the agency’s lax oversight of credit card spending.

Ping quit in June 2023, after a routine state audit discovered suspicious credit card payments, triggering a full-blown fraud probe. During that investigation, the office of State Auditor Pat McCarthy got a court order to obtain Ping’s bank records.

Ping spent about $860,000 on businesses he created in his name between 2019 and 2023, and another $17,000 on personal expenses in that time, the auditor’s office found. In the 2022 fiscal year, Ping’s charges made up 37% of the agency’s credit card spending.

No records could be found to show business activity “other than charging the agency for no clear purpose,” according to the audit.

Ping could not be reached for comment. Messages left at phone numbers and emails listed for him were not returned last week.

The audit report did not say how Ping might have spent the public money.

Investigators discovered he’d accessed the Lucky Eagle Casino website on his work computer using a password, said Kathleen Cooper, communications director for the auditor’s office. Ping’s bank records showed spending at the casino, located in Rochester, Thurston County, Cooper said.

A spokesperson for the Office of Administrative Hearings, Shannon Goudy, said in an email to The Seattle Times that the office was not aware of Ping’s bankruptcies before he was hired or while he was employed there.

The Office of Administrative Hearings is a relatively small agency that oversees impartial hearings for people challenging government decisions that affect them, including unemployment claims and child-support disputes. It employs about 120 administrative law judges and 110 legal support and administrative staff.

Ping’s actions were uncovered in May 2023, when the state auditor’s office picked out credit card charges paid to a consulting business and asked Ping to provide supporting records for them.

The next day, Ping “unexpectedly took leave” from his job, according to the audit.

Last June, after several attempts to find records supporting the payments, the chief financial officer at the Office of Administrative Hearings “agreed that the credit card transactions represented misappropriation,” the audit report said.

The CFO pulled a list of all payments to the consulting business, finding about $529,000 in credit card charges. According to court records, the payments were to a vendor called SRBC Consulting, and Ping was the registered owner. Those payments were made through an online credit card processing point-of-sale system called Intuit, and state auditors sought and received a court order to get those records as well as Ping’s bank records.

On June 10, 2023, auditors opened an investigation and began looking for other unauthorized credit card purchases. They found additional payments to three other vendors associated with Ping, between July 29, 2019, and Jan. 31, 2021, totaling about $330,000.

The auditor asked the Office of Administrative Hearings for supporting records for the charges to the companies but the agency couldn’t find any such records, was not familiar with the vendors and could not explain why the charges had been made.

Ping’s state salary was $82,500 in 2022 as a management analyst, according to Washington’s public payroll database.

He’d previously worked in a lower-paid job, and filed a complaint with the state in 2016 seeking to be reclassified into a higher-paying position, arguing his work at the agency — including “recommendations on cost saving strategies” — justified the raise, according to state records. His request was examined and rejected by the Office of Financial Management. But state payroll records show Ping was promoted to the higher paying role within a couple of years.

This isn’t the first time the Office of Administrative Hearings has been dinged for allowing an employee to misappropriate public funds through poor financial oversight.

A state audit in 2007 found the agency’s then-accounting manager had misappropriated $55,360 over seven years, by generating extra paychecks for herself and concealing them.

As in the Ping case, the 2007 audit report criticized the agency for a “lack of adequate internal controls” that put public money at risk.

The agency has relatively new leadership, after the retirement of longtime Chief Administrative Law Judge Lorraine Lee in January. She was followed by an interim leader, Edward Pesik. Then, RaShelle Davis was appointed to the top role by Gov. Jay Inslee on May 1.

In a statement, Jaime Smith, a spokesperson for Inslee, said Davis “has taken these findings seriously and has not shirked from fixing this grave systemic error.”

“Reforms are already underway to prevent this from happening again, and the agency is cooperating fully with the criminal investigation,” Smith said.

Multiple bankruptcies

Ping has a history of spiraling into debt. Before the 2019 to 2023 credit card payments discovered by the state auditor, he filed for personal bankruptcy four times: in 1999, 2005, 2012 and 2018.

In his most recent bankruptcy in 2018, Ping listed assets of $55,000 and debts totaling $190,000. At the time, he was facing eviction and owed more than $77,000 in student loans and $7,000 in unpaid taxes, according to bankruptcy records. He owned a 2015 BMW 3 series, but owed $25,000 on it.

In 2012, another bankruptcy filing listed $5,810 in assets and liabilities of $84,000, including car loans, student loans and money owed to payday lenders.

In a 2005 bankruptcy, Ping listed $137,000 in assets and $165,000 in debts, reporting he was co-owner of a rental duplex in Lacey. At the time, he listed a job with an Olympia-area wine importer. In that bankruptcy, Ping also listed $2,500 in “casino income.”

Ping’s first bankruptcy came in 1999, court records show. Details of that bankruptcy were not available in the federal court’s online record system.

In releasing the audit last week, McCarthy said she was “greatly concerned” by an “increasing boldness” of the misappropriations of public money “at all levels of government.”

The insufficient controls at the Office of Administrative Hearings had allowed Ping to go undetected for years as he was able to direct payments of public money by himself while hiding records from others that could have raised red flags.

“If managers had asked to see more documentation about all these charges to credit cards, this could have been caught earlier,” said Adam Wilson, a spokesperson for the state auditor, in an email to The Seattle Times. “The kind of independent review we want to see in public finances was missing in this case.”

Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.

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