Pima County taxpayers pay more than $1 million in salaries for suspended workers

2013-11-17T00:00:00Z Pima County taxpayers pay more than $1 million in salaries for suspended workersBy Joe Ferguson, Darren DaRonco, Jamar Younger,
Alexis Huicochea and Patrick McNamara Arizona Daily Star
Arizona Daily Star

Tucson-area governments paid almost $1.2 million in salaries to workers suspended over the past three years while disciplinary actions or complaints against them were processed.

Nearly two-thirds of the approximately 400 workers placed on administrative leave were fired or resigned after being paid to stay home for anywhere from a day to nearly a year, an Arizona Daily Star investigation found.

The investigation, which included Pima County, all of its incorporated municipalities and eight school districts, found that at least five employees spent multiple stints on paid administrative leave. In a few cases, the employees faced criminal prosecution, such as when two city of Tucson Department of Transportation employees were fined thousands of dollars and sentenced to 60 days in the Pima County jail after pleading guilty to theft.

The payments made to government workers while on forced leave range from less than $100 to more than $62,000. The average payout was $3,167.

Public records requests to the governments surveyed were limited to those put on paid leave for disciplinary investigations, and specifically excluded such things as police officers on leave following a shooting.

Why pay people for bad behavior?

The lengthy administrative process that usually precedes the firing of a public-sector employee contrasts greatly from much of the private sector, particularly in an at-will employment state like Arizona.

That’s largely due to the rules and regulations each governing body has adopted.

“Public employees with employment agreements, such as those used for schooteachers, are considered to have a ‘property right’ in their jobs,” said Cara Rene, spokeswoman for Tucson Unified School District. “Such a right cannot be taken without due process proceedings.”

That requires an investigation to determine if an offense has occurred and whether discipline or termination is appropriate.

“If you stop payment before the investigation has run its course, you’re saying a person is guilty before they’ve been tried,” said Dan Ireland, vice president of the Tucson Education Association, which represents TUSD teachers.

The fact that a number of employees do return to the job reflects that the system works, Rene said.

In some cases, TUSD has gone back and recovered money paid to employees on leave after investigations concluded and the worker was fired.

Investigations have to follow prescribed procedures that sometimes include a hearing and usually culminate with a governing-board decision, Vail superintendent Calvin Baker said.

“We can’t do Donald Trump and say, ‘You’re fired,’” he said. “If you put someone on unpaid leave, you’re punishing them before you started the investigation. It’s in line with the American principle of where you’re innocent until proven guilty.”

State law also provides protections to teachers. Arizona Revised Statutes mandates that teachers charged with criminal allegations and placed on compulsory leave for more than 10 days continue to receive regular pay until their case is adjudicated.

The Tucson City Charter stipulates that the city follow procedures such as giving proper notice of impending discipline, making employees aware of their appeal rights, and more.

However, it doesn’t require the city to pay employees placed on leave during an investigation.

Payments stem from long-standing administrative policies designed to protect the employee and limit the city’s exposure to potential litigation, said City Attorney Mike Rankin.

With few exceptions, the city does not place employees on unpaid leave unless they face criminal charges, Rankin said. Even so, he said, not paying an employee while on leave during an ongoing investigation could place taxpayers on the hook for much more than back wages.

“If we were right, we wouldn’t be ordered to pay back anything,” he said. “But if we were wrong, we’d have to pay back pay, plus interest.”

At least one city official would support a change to the current policy if it stopped rewarding employee malfeasance.

“So you have this situation where if someone is recovering or caring for someone who has an illness, that person has to take a financial hit,” said Councilman Steve Kozachik. “While the guy ripping off the city gets a paid vacation.”

But Zachary Smith, a Northern Arizona University political science and public administration professor, said there is an historical basis for paid-leave policies, rooted in the nation’s long history with spoils systems at all levels of government — systems that allowed municipal employees to be hired and fired based on political allegiances.

Many states, including Arizona, now have civil service rules that include protection from politically motivated firings in government.

“Public employees have a number of advantages that private employees don’t have,” Smith said.

He acknowledging that it’s understandable that people get angry when governments put people on paid leaves, only to fire them months later.

City of Tucson

Tucson led the region in both the number of employees placed on paid leave and the overall cost to taxpayers, with $493,844 paid out to 121 employees over the three-year period.

Former Tucson Department of Transportation streets administrator Kurt Hough collected the most and was off the longest by far, at $62,867 over 11 months.

Hough and other TDOT employees became the focus of an extensive city investigation following allegations that they used city equipment, materials and manpower for outside jobs.

Fellow TDOT worker Robert Palomarez received $22,208 in paid leave while subject to the same investigation. In all, the city paid around $140,000 to employees who were suspended during the nearly yearlong investigation. Five employees lost their jobs.

Hough and Palomarez, the only ones charged with crimes, both pleaded guilty earlier this year. Each was sentenced to 60 days in jail and ordered to pay $5,000 in restitution.

Also high on the list was Tommy Obermaier, former deputy director of the Tucson Convention Center, who received $38,341 while the city investigated his years of mismanagement.

Obermaier was fired in January after a five-month investigation showed his double-booking of events, mishandling of contracts and more, all which cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Tucson Police Department paid out $162,123 to employees who were under investigation. Topping TPD’s list was former officer Andrea Middleton, who collected $24,033 during an investigation into whether she used police resources to harass an ex-boyfriend’s love interests.

Middleton, who resigned in June after being on paid leave since November 2012, pleaded guilty to two counts of computer tampering and received three years probation.

Another former officer, Martin Ward, collected $17,972 over nearly five months of paid leave. Ward resigned earlier this year after a TPD investigation found he violated multiple department regulations and laws, including lying about being married and forging documents to receive Family and Medical Leave benefits. He is in the Pima County Jail, awaiting sentencing on child pornography charges.

Former officer John Hill was paid $22,861 before TPD fired him earlier this year after an investigation found he performed records checks on people using police computers and then shared the information with people outside of law enforcement.

Pima County typically pays employees on administrative leave for no more than a month.

Roughly 100 employees were put on leave in the last three years. Reasons included investigations into sheriff’s deputies and correction officers for lying to their supervisors, submitting false time sheets, having an improper relationship with an inmate, and being arrested for domestic violence, assault or driving under the influence.

Corrections Sgt. Samuel Torres, for example, spent nearly three months on administrative leave while under investigation for using excessive force against an inmate during an incident in 2012. The county paid him more than $10,000 before firing him.

In all, 40 Sheriff’s Department officers and support staff received $87,726 in paid leave during a three-year period between July 2010 and July 2013.

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said most of the requests to extend paid leave beyond 30 days come from the Sheriff’s Department, which he attributed to the complexity of the investigations.

Other county employees who spent months on paid leave include Davida Arambula, an attorney who earned $14,400 over two months while under investigation for violating county policies. She resigned before the investigation concluded.

The 64 nonpublic-safety county employees placed on paid administrative leave over the last three years were paid $219,011, records shows. However, records indicate about half were put on leave in advance of being laid off, rather than for disciplinary reasons. Many of them worked in information technology, which the county downsized.

Huckelberry said the county has a policy of giving employees with access to sensitive equipment or technology paid time off once the decision has been made to lay them off.

Bonnie Jane Jasmer drove a school bus for the Tucson Unified School District for nearly two years before she was arrested for her role in two bank robberies.

Despite her arrest, the accused getaway driver remained on the payroll of Tucson’s largest school district, earning nearly $3,000 before she was terminated more than 12 weeks later.

Jasmer is among 54 TUSD employees placed on paid administrative leave over the last three years. While the district was unable to provide a total paid out, data provided by the district indicates TUSD paid more than $82,000 to at least half of the employees.

Nearly 60 percent of them were ultimately fired, resigned or retired. Some of the rest were demoted, and others remain employed in the same capacity — some of whom served suspensions without pay later.

Among the reasons for the paid leave: alleged inappropriate relationships with students, giving a student the wrong medication, theft, and threatening an administrator.

The Amphitheater Unified School District paid about $74,000 in administrative leave — almost matching the payout for TUSD, despite being a third the size.

Only one of the 20 employees put on leave returned to the district. Todd Jaeger, associate superintendent and general counsel for the district, cited state law as the reason they were paid, including two who were facing criminal charges.

Katia Garcia-Huerta, a former counselor, was acquitted in 2012 after accusations she didn’t tell authorities about an inappropriate relationship she discovered between a teacher she was dating and a 16-year-old student. She received $12,608 while on leave.

Former teacher Yvonne Bernino was paid $19,613 while on leave. Oro Valley Municipal Court records show she was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor in October 2011. Records indicate the charges were later dismissed after she completed a diversion program.

Neither is still with the district.

The Sahuarita Unified School District paid more than $53,000 to two employees placed on administrative leave, which was among the highest totals for Tucson’s smaller school districts.

Individually, the pair was among the Tucson-area government employees who received the most money while on leave.

Bryce Bond, the district’s former career and technical education director, was paid $31,408 while on leave, which was the third-largest amount paid to a Tucson-area employee. The district refused to say why Bond was placed on leave in May or to discuss his subsequent resignation.

The district also refused to say why former Sahuarita High School Principal Mark Neish was placed on leave and paid $21,714 before he resigned in 2010.

However, a September 2010 Arizona Daily Star story said the district began investigating him for issues related to job performance. The story reported district officials told Neish to give up his keys and work badge before escorting him off campus.

While refusing to comment on either case, Sahuarita Superintendent Manuel Valenzuela said it can take time to investigate an employee and make a decision.

“Our goal is to maintain really high professional standards and make decisions in the best interest of the students. Sometimes that involves parting ways professionally,” he said. “The fact of the matter is, there is a cost associated with making a decision.”

In many cases, district officials may need to send employees home while they are being investigated, if their presence at work will cause harm or be a hindrance to students, Valenzuela said. But that doesn’t mean the person has been or will be punished, he added.

The Vail School District paid almost $29,000 to 41 workers who were placed on leave.

Although no employee was paid more than $1,800, the 42 employees who were sent home was high compared to similar-sized districts.

“It is not uncommon for there to be problems with people performing at the level we expect,” said Vail Superintendent Calvin Baker. “We hold people accountable.

“We have two overriding objectives: One is to keep children safe, and the other is to accomplish our objective at the lowest possible cost,” Baker said of the district’s paid-leave practices.

— Oro Valley paid out $33,927 to 24 employees over the three-year period. Of those 24 employees, 14 either resigned or were fired.

— Marana paid out $32,411 to 11 employees. The Marana Police Department investigated officer Jerry Brei on three separate occasions between September 2010 and March 2012. He collected a total of $12,377 during those investigations. Marana records do not explain why he was investigated.

— South Tucson spent more than $19,000 on paid administrative leave for three Police Department employees. Two officers were fired — one for an on-duty DUI and accident, the other for misconduct and a domestic violence arrest. Together they earned $14,730. A sergeant accused of misconduct involving city funds was on leave for less than two months before the complaint was determined unfounded.

— The Tanque Verde School District placed three employees on paid leave over the three-year period, spending $14,171. Nearly all of that — $14,011 — went to a nurse accused of misconduct.

The district did not identify the nurse or provide details about the case because the allegations were deemed unfounded after she spent five months on leave. The nurse returned to work at the end of January, and voluntarily resigned in May.

— The Marana Unified School District spent $8,726 on administrative leave for five employees. Two were fired for insubordination and failure to follow governing board policies. Another resigned after being accused of not properly supervising students. The other two employees still work for the district.

— The Sunnyside Unified School District paid about $7,325 to four people. All of them returned to work, but one was suspended for two days without pay for having an inappropriate conversation with a student.

— The Town of Sahuarita listed three employees who received paid leave in the last three years. They got a total of $6,875.

— The Catalina Foothills School District paid about $2,600 to a teacher accused of sending an unprofessional email and a coach who was investigated over concerns about social relationships. Ultimately, the district chose not to renew either of their contracts.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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