Cops net big bounty via court overtime

Former Philadelphia Police Lt. Richard Brown, who benefited from creative booking to collect thousands in overtime, investigators say.
Former Philadelphia Police Lt. Richard Brown, who benefited from creative booking to collect thousands in overtime, investigators say. (NBC NEWS / DATELINE)
Posted: December 27, 2011

THEY CALL IT "piling on": Money-hungry police officers, looking to pad their paychecks with overtime, add their names to arrest reports and other investigative paperwork, no matter how minor their role.

That way, when a case arises in court, they get called to testify - and possibly paid overtime.

Piling on was such a problem in the Philadelphia Police Department that former Commissioner John Timoney, seeking to curb ballooning overtime costs, issued a directive on court notices in 1999 intended to tighten oversight and ensure that only essential officers appear in court.

But Lt. Richard Brown apparently didn't get the memo on that effort - or he ignored it.

The Central Detectives supervisor fudged paperwork to rack up nearly $17,000 in court compensation that he wasn't entitled to between 2006 and 2009, according to Internal Affairs investigators.

Yet, while current top-cop Charles Ramsey has waged a high-profile crusade to crack down on corruption in the department, Brown was allowed to quietly retire last year, dodging scrutiny that could have resulted in criminal charges and ensuring that he'll get a $43,229 pension.

"That's theft," said Brian Puricelli, the attorney representing two whistle-blower cops who complain that they were retaliated against when they cooperated with detectives who were investigating Brown.

In a cash-strapped city that's faced years of trimmed budgets, some police watchdogs question why investigators failed to send Brown's case to the District Attorney's Office for review for possible criminal charges, as Ramsey said should be routine when serious wrongdoing is uncovered.

"There's a very good question that I hear as to why they didn't refer this to the D.A.'s office," said Ronda Goldfein, an attorney and member of the Police Advisory Commission, the civilian oversight agency. Commission members had not heard of the allegations against Brown.

"When anybody paid by city money does something wrong, all the citizens and taxpayers of the city should be complaining about it," Goldfein added.

Especially since police overtime has been a sore point for years. City Controller Alan Butkovitz in 2007 highlighted this issue as a concern, saying that some cops essentially were padding their own paychecks. Ramsey created an overtime-management unit two years ago that has successfully reduced overtime costs.

The probe into Brown, who couldn't be reached for comment, started with an anonymous complaint to Internal Affairs in July 2006, according to police and court records.

The caller told investigators that officers and supervisors in Central Detectives were gambling online while working and receiving overtime pay for reporting to court despite never appearing there.

The details emerged during an internal investigation that dragged on for four years and a still-ongoing federal civil-rights lawsuit, in which detectives Miguel Alers and Denise Szustowicz claim they were improperly disciplined for cooperating with the internal probe. Neither would comment for this report.

Internal Affairs investigators determined that Brown and a detective viewed online gaming sites while on duty. But they couldn't confirm that the officers placed bets because Brown directed another detective to replace the hard drive, according to an Internal Affairs report.

On the overtime allegations, investigators documented 220 times that Brown claimed he was in court, despite never checking in there. Further, a detective who oversaw attendance records testified in a deposition in the whistle-blowers' lawsuit that Brown changed his scheduled shift in department computers so that it would appear that he was called to court during his off hours, which boosted his compensation.

The fudged paperwork added up to $47,561 in "court overtime," plus $16,834 in contract-negotiated compensation for appearing in court when he wasn't scheduled to work. It's unclear whether Brown actually worked the overtime.

In December 2010, Brown was charged with neglect of duty and conduct unbecoming an officer for the gambling and overtime offenses.

But by then, he had already retired. The 29-year veteran, whose base salary was nearly $77,000 last year, resigned in February 2010, taking $124,669 with him for unpaid holidays and vacation and sick days, according to city records. But in an unusual move, the city withheld the $16,834.

Deputy Commissioner John Gaittens explained the withholding during a deposition in the whistle-blowers' lawsuit: "I wanted that money back."

Of Brown filing for court overtime when he didn't go to court, Gaittens added:

"That is a significant violation there. I mean, you're stealing money."

Asked last week whether he viewed Brown's overtime grab as theft, Ramsey said: "Yes. It was an abuse, no question about that. I recommended dismissal, but we can't stop an individual from retiring who's eligible to retire."

Ramsey was less certain about why the case didn't go before the D.A. for criminal consideration.

Sgt. Joseph Nadolski, the Internal Affairs investigator who handled the probe, was evasive when asked during deposition whether someone - and who - had directed him to withhold his findings from the D.A. Instead, he repeated that his boss, former Chief Inspector Anthony DiLacqua, told him to close his investigation and finish his report. DiLacqua, who now heads security at SugarHouse Casino, couldn't be reached for comment last week.

Ramsey couldn't explain it. "Maybe we just dropped the ball on that one, but at least we recovered the money," he said yesterday.

But "oops!" isn't a good answer when it comes to ensuring the integrity of the department, one police watchdog said.

"Is the alleged misuse of police time serious and something that's very disturbing to the core of police work? Absolutely," said James C. Crumlish III, an attorney who also serves on the Police Advisory Commission. "When a police officer is found to be guilty of wrongdoing, any arrests he was involved in are undermined, public confidence in the department is undermined, and the ability to discipline other officers is undermined. It really is a cancer on the whole department."

That's why the D.A. should determine whether the offense rose above employee misconduct and constituted criminal conduct, he added.

Reining in police overtime has been a challenging priority for the top brass for years.

In 2007, when overall police overtime topped $69 million, Butkovitz blasted the department's overtime practices in an audit, finding that "officers with substantial overtime earnings were posting and approving their own time . . . which was subsequently processed without any approval whatsoever."

The Brown case "is an example of what happens if you have a system like that," Butkovitz said last week. "The city is such a big payroll that it's very dangerous to let people write their own checks. This needs to be taken seriously by the highest level of all departments.

"This will be an issue we will look at closely in the next police audit," Butkovitz added.

Departmental policy does require supervisors to ensure that overtime is appropriate and that officers reporting for court duty are essential. Further, supervisors are typically not considered essential for court.

But Brown's boss, Capt. Sharon Seaborough, approved Brown's doctored attendance reports 124 times without verifying that he appeared in court, Internal Affairs investigators found. Consequently, she was charged with neglect of duty; the Police Board of Inquiry later found her not guilty.

In recent years, police overtime had spiked to nearly $85.5 million in fiscal year 2008, according to police data.

But Ramsey's efforts to plug the overtime geyser appear to be working. In fiscal year 2011, total police overtime had sunk to $54.1 million.

Still, some officers - primarily homicide detectives - nearly triple their base pay through overtime. Brown was one of the department's top overtime earners, racking up nearly $250,000 in overtime in the six years before he retired, according to city payroll records. "We got 6,800 members. At some point in time, you got to hope that people are being truthful," Ramsey said. "You can't check every single member. It's not the norm that people would falsify information.

"Overtime is not a bad thing; there are things that go beyond your tour of duty," he added. "But it's our job to manage it and make sure it's appropriate. We do the best we can to make sure people are not working unauthorized overtime."

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