Palm Beach Post (Florida) - by Andrew Abramson
An investigation alleging overpayments to three housing department employees is exacerbating tensions between the city administration and its own auditor, while stirring charges of racial discrimination and lax management in an office already under fire for losing track of millions in federal grant dollars.
The three employees - including the department's 2010 employee of the year - face disciplinary action for allegedly putting in for work they didn't do. The findings have led the city's internal auditor to pledge a separate investigation targeting the role of department directors who were supposed to keep tabs on them.
A five-month joint investigation by the auditor and the human resources department found that during an 18-month span during 2010 and 2011, the three put in for a total of more than 300 hours they allegedly didn't work, and at times some employees in the department appeared to cover for each other.
The three ended up facing punishment for far less than the audit findings originally questioned, after documents cast doubt on some findings. But the auditor still contended that they should have been fired.
The investigation was completed in mid-December, while the department already was coping with the departure of its eighth director in eight years, internal accusations of racial discrimination and reverse discrimination, and an ongoing probe of a house construction project that could leave the city on the hook to the federal government for $4.1 million. Amid all that, the city was ordered to repay $1.6 million for a federally funded roofing project gone awry in 2006.
As a result of the payroll investigation, senior accounting clerk Amelia Harris was suspended three days without pay for allegedly not working 12.5 hours for which she was paid. The hours were deducted from her accrued sick pay and vacation time.
Tanya Daffin, the city's housing and community development program coordinator, received a verbal reprimand for taking 32 hours of vacation time in February 2010 and filing a time card saying she worked the hours. The hours are being deducted from her vacation time. Daffin was the department's employee of the year for 2010.
To date, the city hasn't penalized the third employee, Deidre Jacobs, who also has been accused of similar time-reporting discrepancies.
None of the employees would comment. But in formal responses to the auditor, they or their union attributed the time-card discrepancies to oversights or paperwork lapses in some cases that could easily be amended. In other instances, they said they had written permission for the pay that the auditor questioned.
Union leaders described the investigation as a witch hunt to bring down Housing Director Valmarie Turner.
On Nov. 1, Turner wrote a memo to City Administrator Ed Mitchell, complaining that as department director she should have been involved in the investigation but that the auditor had kept her in the dark.
She had arrived in West Palm Beach only a year ago - as the city's eighth housing director since 2003 - with instructions to overhaul the department. Two days after writing the memo, she accepted a job in Seminole County.
In recent weeks, she had been praised by city leaders, after a separate investigation she conducted revealed that millions of dollars could not be accounted for in the federally funded house construction project in the impoverished Coleman Park neighborhood. In that case, West Palm Beach officials have ordered Redemptive Life Fellowship Urban Initiatives, a nonprofit associated with Bishop Harold Ray's 600-member church in West Palm Beach, to repay the city as much as $1.1 million.
The city and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development continue to investigate. Redemptive Life representatives say the nonprofit made minor mistakes, but nothing egregious.
The payroll investigation did not focus on Turner or her predecessor, Jim Fackrell, but concluded they "did not follow policies as they relate to approving leave and timekeeping practices." Turner did not comment and Fackrell could not be reached for comment.
The investigation heightened friction between the city administration and the internal audit office.
The audit department staff was cut from six employees to three in recent years, a sore point for Internal Auditor Imogene Isaacs, who has asked Mayor Jeri Muoio to increase the staff to weed out corruption in the city. The two quarreled on the staffing issue a few years ago, when Muoio was a city commissioner serving as chair of the city's auditing committee.
Muoio recently said that three employees were enough for the office. She would not comment for this story.
Isaacs, the only city employee who cannot be fired by the mayor, said last week that an upcoming investigation will look into Turner's and Fackrell's roles in the payroll discrepancies. The city's discipline process needs to be overhauled, because Turner's OK was required for the penalties for her own employees, Isaacs added.
Human resources, and not department directors, should make final disciplinary decisions, Isaacs said. "Under any other department director, they would have been fired," she said of the three housing employees.
Isaacs said the investigation began when an employee approached the internal audit department about an unrelated matter. Isaacs then began looking into the payroll practices of all employees, and found three whose time cards appeared to have many discrepancies.
The investigation found more than 200 unaccounted-for hours claimed by Daffin. On numerous occasions, records showed, Daffin's computer was logged in and out, but there were no records showing any email access on those days.
Former housing employee Robert Grieser, one of five housing employees or contract workers who resigned or were fired when Turner arrived in 2010, said that payroll abuses in the department "have gone on and on and went unchecked for years."
Grieser, a five-year employee who resigned, said the three employees recently cited would "go into their office, turn the lights and computer on and close the door so it made it appear they were working. They'd show up late, or leave at 10 a.m. and not even come back. It was ridiculous what was going on."
Grieser and two other former employees described a racial divide within the department.
All of the employees who left when Turner arrived were white. Grieser alleged that older white males were retaliated against, while black female employees were protected by Turner and her boss, Deputy City Administrator Dorritt Miller.
The three employees under investigation are black, as are Turner and Miller. Miller declined to comment, but city spokesman Chase Scott called any claim of reverse discrimination "patently untrue and offensive to everyone on its face."
In her memo to Mitchell, Turner said internal investigators were hostile. "The humanistic element of this investigation was simply overlooked and an adversarial environment was created," Turner wrote.
Ralph Wall, a Professional Managers and Supervisors Association leader who represented Daffin, said Daffin has filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against the city over the payroll investigation.
The union leader asserted that the auditor opened the investigation this summer only after Turner privately criticized the audit department for going years without catching mistakes in the Redemptive Life project that could cost the city millions.
Turner, in her memo, said she should have had the opportunity to participate in the payroll investigation.
It was an arduous task for the three employees to prove they worked on specific days up to 18 months earlier, she wrote.
Wall called the payroll investigation "totally incompetent." Records showed copies and phone calls were made on some of Daffin's unaccounted-for days, for example.
"After the initial investigation, additional documentation presented that the indicated employees had actually worked some of that time that had been questioned, and they received punishment based on the updated findings," said Scott, the city spokesman.
City records show that all three employees were written up in the past for payroll-reporting issues, misusing leave time or altering time-card information. City records show a written reprimand for Harris.
But Wall pointed to internal audit's 2004 investigation that found thousands of misused overtime hours in the police department, noting that not a single officer was disciplined by the city. "There have been little situations over the years for lots of people when it comes to time," he said.