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Durham officials raise concerns after DPD firing

A Durham Police Department employee’s recent termination over excessive overtime pay has raised concerns about a lack of oversight.

During a year in which the alleged overtime abuse took place, several employees at both the City of Durham and DPD questioned how a non-uniformed employee was earning overtime compensation that more than doubled her regular salary. Several attempts to shine a light on the situation were ignored by senior officials at the police department, said City Council member Eugene Brown.

“I’m angry about this,” Brown said. “I’m upset about this and what makes me particularly angry about this is the fact that this was not dealt with when brought to the police department’s attention.”

According to an audit released by Durham’s Audit Services Department, Alesha Robinson-Taylor, a secondary employment coordinator at DPD, earned $62,583.13 in overtime pay between September 2008 and August 2009. When concerns about the legitimacy of Robinson-Taylor’s overtime were voiced, the mechanisms within DPD and the city to address the concerns proved ineffective.

Durham City Manager Tom Bonfield said the leadership within the police department failed on several occasions to adequately respond to the claims of abuse when it was brought to their attention.

“This situation with the audit finding... is of extra concern for us,” he said. “It is particularly troubling that this was going on while we were in the midst of budget cuts and when we had to eliminate 113 positions, many of them were police officers.”

Nearly all of Robinson-Taylor’s overtime compensation was approved by Deputy Police Chief B.J. Council. Council will retire Dec. 31.

DPD Public Information Officer Kammie Michael declined to comment, referring The Chronicle to the city manager’s office.

Bonfield said he is not concerned by the department’s decision to allow Council to retire, noting that the decision is common when an employee has a long-standing tenure within any company or organization.

“In the case of a senior person who had worked for the city for 20 years, you certainly have to make a change in leadership, but I don’t think you need to punish the entirety of their career,” he said.

Robinson-Taylor’s immediate supervisor, Capt. Charlene Balch, noticed the excessive overtime and brought it to the attention of Council. In response, Council relieved Balch of her duties approving Robinson-Taylor’s overtime pay and instead approved it herself.

“In essence, Charlene was the whistle-blower, but her whistle was taken from her by B.J. Council,” Brown said.

The audit placed blame on both Council and DPD Chief Jose Lopez, who was made aware of the situation as early as April.

According to the audit, DPD Administrative Chief Jessie Burwell told Lopez that the amount of overtime being earned by Robinson-Taylor was unacceptable. Then, and again in June, Lopez and Council defended the overtime pay.

Within the city manager’s office, payroll employees also noticed discrepancies and alerted their superiors, said Deputy City Manager Wanda Page, who oversees the city’s payroll division that handles payroll duties for DPD.

“Certainly the assumption is that if hours are claimed for compensation, then those hours were actually worked,” she said. “Those hours are verified by the supervisor when they sign the employee’s time card.”

Page said because it is not uncommon for DPD officers and employees to work overtime, the payroll department is not designed to catch instances of abuse.

“It is not a system designed to determine if what an employee turns in on a case by case basis is correct,” she said. “It could be possible, even more than occasionally, that they may work 45 or 50 hours [a week], sometimes even more, if they worked a double shift. If it is the case that an employee is supposed to work 40 hours a week, and claims to have worked 80, then that is something that would raise a flag in the finance department.”

Bonfield said that ultimately, complacency was to blame for both the city’s and DPD’s decisions not to probe deeper into whether or not the overtime pay received by Robinson-Taylor was legitimate.

“There were situations where [police staff raised concerns] and they were told it was approved by commanding officers within the department and the finance department also raised concerns several times and they were told the same thing,” he said. “The problem was that they accepted that instead of taking the issue to higher levels of city government.”

Bonfield noted that the city manager’s office has a confidential hotline that employees can call in order to report abuse, waste or fraud within various departments within the city. But throughout the 12 months in question, no one called the hotline to report the alleged abuse.

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