BOSTON — Public workers who claim hours they didn’t work could be sued in civil court under a new proposal from the state’s inspector general.

A bill sent to the Legislature by Inspector General Glenn Cunha would allow state, county, city or town governments to sue employees who falsify payroll records and seek restitution for up to three times the amount of fraudulent wages.

Cunha said the state’s false claims act, as currently written, prevents local governments from recouping fraudulently claimed pay. A recently approved police reform law closed a similar loophole for law enforcement, he said, but it did not cover other public sector employees.

“We knew this was an issue with the state police,” Cunha said in an interview. “But what we want is for it to cover all the other public sector workers.”

State and local governments now can recover fraudulent wages if criminal charges are filed, but they cannot refer cases to the attorney general to seek restitution. Cunha’s proposal would allow the state and local governments to file civil actions for payroll fraud that occurred as long as six years before the law is adopted.

The changes in the police reform law were inspired by the state police overtime scandal in which 46 current and retired troopers were implicated in a scheme to draw overtime pay for shifts they didn’t work. At least 10 troopers have been charged criminally while others were disciplined or fired.

Under the police reforms, officers who falsify times sheets can be fined three times the amount of their fraudulent wages, and could face up to two years in prison.

Those changes do not affect other state, county and municipal workers.

So far, no lawmakers have signed onto Cunha’s bill. He said he expects it to pick up support as the two-year legislative session gets underway.

It’s not yet clear if public sector unions will oppose the measure. Requests to several unions seeking comment were not immediately returned.

Geoff Beckwith, executive director Massachusetts Municipal Association, said his organization hasn’t reviewed the proposal but welcomes the removal of barriers for cash-strapped cities and towns to recoup fraudulently collected wages.

“We certainly appreciate the inspector general’s efforts to ensure local governments the authority and appropriate remedies to incentivize the right behavior,” he said.

Cunha said while the state police scandal grabbed headlines, payroll theft is also a problem for the state and local governments. He said his office has worked with local officials to beef up oversight of payroll and investigate fraud in recent years, and it has recovered hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“This is taxpayer money,” he said. “We need more scrutiny to make sure people who are putting in hours for compensation in fact worked those hours.”

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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