Two young men from Kaloleni estate were approached by a friend and put on the payroll of the Nairobi County government.
All they were asked to do was open bank accounts but not bother to apply for ATM cards.
This later turned out to be one of the most elaborate schemes that could explain theft by the payroll managers.
The two men would later learn that regular payments were made into the accounts in what they believed was salaries considering the pattern of the transactions.
That was last year, and the fraudulent payments went on for months. It is unclear if the theft has stopped, although the flow of cash to the bogus employees has stopped.
In Kericho, the names of some employees could not be traced in the system, yet they regularly received a salary.
In Baringo, the case was even more bizarre. Six doctors supposedly working at Kabarnet Hospital and earning about Sh300,000 each a month could not be traced during an audit that uncovered hundreds of ghost workers.
It is thought that they were deliberately retained on the payroll although they resigned more than three years ago.
These incidents highlight the scale of plunder of public funds in the counties through ghost workers - shadowy figures who deliver no service but unscrupulous payroll officials fatten their bank accounts at the expense of the taxpayer.
At least six counties are undertaking human resource audits that are confirming the existence of ghost workers, just five years after a similar countrywide study found 12,500 non-existent employees.
Other counties have completed their workforce scrutiny, which unearthed complex employment scams draining billions in taxpayer funds.
The financial implications of having fake workers on payrolls is huge, with all counties spending about half of their budgets on salaries.
At stake is their ability to offer critical services to citizens.
Last year, counties collectively spent Sh111 billion on salaries – a 15 per cent jump from the previous year, partly informed by massive recruitment before and after the August elections.
Desperation for re-election among governors meant giving jobs to win political goodwill and after the vote, more jobs were created to reward supporters.
Real concerns, however, abound over obvious theft by senior county managers, past and present, which could be informing the staffing cleanup.
Kiambu, Kisii, Samburu, Elgeyo Marakwet and Nyeri have separately sought the services of auditors, who are digging through human resource files to weed out bogus employees.
It is believed that a significant proportion of the 132,600 workers in counties as at last December are phoney.
Where the audits have been completed, the findings were outrageous.
In Meru, nearly 1,800 employees were spurious, according to the firm that carried out the audit.
Migori could only find 3,078 workers during a recent headcount against the 3,345 names appearing on the payroll.
The ghosts included employees inherited from the defunct municipality, some reported to be long dead. The audit was projected to save the county Sh90 million a year.
"This means 267 employees are on the payroll illegally and have been earning thousands of shillings each month, yet they don't work here," said Governor Okoth Obado.
The audit also showed huge discrepancies in allowances paid to some staff, some way above their job groups.
Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko has acknowledged that ghost workers were a burden to his administration, a concern shared by nearly all his colleagues.
In Vihiga, Governor Wilber Ottichilo said massive recruitment just before the last election inflated the workforce to 3,747.
“Three months before elections, 50 security personnel were hired earning Sh60,000 each per month, 300 religious leaders and pensioners are earning Sh10,000 per month and boda boda leaders at various bus stages are paid Sh20,000 per month,” Mr Ottichilo said.
He said the wage bill had risen from Sh101 million to over Sh200 million a month since 2013.
That year, Nairobi County undertook a staff audit that unearthed over 4,000 ghost workers.
Audit firm Deloitte found that Meru had 1,783 ghost workers on its payroll.
In Nyandarua, ghost workers pushed up the monthly wage bill by Sh10 million.
An audit in Nandi in November last year revealed about a fifth of the 1,090 staff were ghost workers, sucking over Sh200 million each month.
Kisii is suspected to have up to 1,000 bogus employees, including 300 who were added to the payroll around the last elections.
In Nyamira, an audit unveiled an employment scam that cost of Sh84 million. Sh1.16 million has been paid in salaries every month over the past six years.
Elsewhere, Mandera Governor Ali Roba has requested the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission to prosecute 100 ghost workers who were unearthed after he ordered an audit. A recent report by the Auditor General Edward Ouko showed that five counties have lost Sh3.4 billion in salaries and allowances paid to ghosts.
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