More APD overtime issues irk councilors - Albuquerque Journal

More APD overtime issues irk councilors

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

Another overtime scandal has erupted at the Albuquerque Police Department and some city councilors are now calling for the chief to apologize for the way he handled the aftermath.

The officer in question – former Lt. Jim Edison – was ultimately terminated in mid-November for being untruthful following internal affairs investigations, according to a department spokesman.

Since then, statements made by Chief Harold Medina to KRQE-TV – which was first to report on the investigations – have drawn sharp criticism from City Councilors Louie Sanchez and Dan Lewis, who say he should be taking responsibility for waste and fraud in his department. Medina said the deputy chiefs don’t have time to examine everyone’s hours.

Jim Edison, then a sergeant, testifies in court about the Omaree Varela case. Edison was fired in November for being untruthful during an investigation into overtime abuse, according to an Albuquerque Police Department spokesman. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Lewis has even said the chief deserves a no-confidence vote from the council.

The incident is the latest in a string of overtime scandals. Seven audits or investigations have been conducted examining overtime abuse at APD since 2014. The latest, released by State Auditor Brian Colón in August, found that problems identified in previous investigations persisted and the city was not tracking its progress in addressing recommendations.

In a meeting with Journal editors and reporters, Chief Medina said Edison wasn’t exactly breaking the law, but he was taking advantage of the terms within the collective bargaining agreement between the city and the union to claim more overtime than he actually worked. The union represents officers, lieutenants and sergeants.

Referencing prior audits of APD’s overtime uses and abuses, Medina said he thinks the department has improved.

“Look at the audit reports – it said hold people and supervisors accountable to create that culture,” Medina said. “That’s what we’re doing. He was held accountable.”

Medina has asked for, and is now getting, a regular audit of top earners of overtime, said Gilbert Gallegos, an APD spokesman. He said the chief of staff is working on an automated process to alert the chief and supervisors to issues on an ongoing basis.

Pay stubs APD provided to the Journal show Edison made $186,944 in 2020 and $173,672 in 2021. In 2020, more than $95,000 appears to be from overtime. Over the course of a year – from April 2020 to April 2021 – Edison made about $224,000, according to records APD provided.

Edison’s attorneys insist he did nothing wrong, and say he followed standard operating procedures and the terms of the collective bargaining agreement. They are appealing his termination before the city’s personnel board, and considering filing a lawsuit.

Edison has not been asked to return any of his earnings.

A spokeswoman for the Attorney General said the office has been contacted by APD and “anticipates a potential referral.”

Everything was above board, attorney says

In the spring of 2020, right after the pandemic began, Edison was put in charge of the COVID-19 unit in APD’s Special Operations Bureau. That meant he was coordinating the department’s response, including contact tracing, testing of officers and directing them when to quarantine.

However, an internal investigation into the time he claimed in 2021 – sparked by a social media post and a complaint made to the Civilian Police Oversight Agency – found Edison was routinely forwarding voicemails or emails outside of work hours and claiming two hours of overtime in each instance. The collective bargaining agreement states that, when an officer is called in to work outside their regular working hours, they are guaranteed pay for a minimum of two hours.

But the investigation found he was voluntarily taking on tasks outside of his regularly scheduled hours.

“An example, continued to be listed on his overtime slips were emails he chose to send each morning (early hours, example 0300 hour) and claiming an automatic 2-hours,” the investigator wrote in the report. “(Deputy Chief Michael) Smathers did not require this work at that time and never ‘called him to work’ to complete those at that time during the period investigated.”

Gallegos said Edison – who had been with APD for 14 years – received an 80-hour suspension and a 120-hour suspension for two complaints about his overtime pay, and was also investigated for retaliating against a commander who raised the issue. He did not serve his suspensions before he was fired, according to a union attorney.

“All three together and also that there was a determination that he was untruthful – that’s what ultimately led to termination,” Gallegos said.

Smathers received a verbal reprimand and an eight-hour suspension without pay for lack of supervision, Gallegos said.

Edison’s attorney Tim White insists that everything was above board and that his client really did work those hours. He pointed out that Edison had to create the department’s response to COVID-19 from “ground zero” and was the only one working on it for the first six months.

“What really happens is, Jim takes that call and whether he takes it live or whether he takes a voicemail, listens to it, and then refers that piece to one of the subordinates in the unit, he’s still working,” White said. “He’s having to wait to see what that person that he has sent the work to needs. Do they need to call him back? Is he going to still be involved? And until that call comes back from whoever he’s sent the work to, he’s on the clock.”

‘Petty council politics’

When KRQE interviewed Medina, he defended his command staff, noting Smathers had taken responsiblity for his missteps.

“The executive staff, we’re so busy that to go through the fine details of looking through somebody’s time sheets is not something that we’re going to be carving out time for,” Medina said.

That comment drew the ire of some city councilors. At the most recent council meeting, Sanchez, a former APD officer, questioned Medina about why there isn’t time to check a time sheet – which he called “the single most important item that you deal with as a police officer.”

Louie Sanchez

In a statement to the Journal, Sanchez reiterated that point and said that, if an APD employee cannot truthfully fill out a time sheet “how can they be trusted to enforce the law, write criminal complaints, and testify in court?”

“Chief Medina needs to take responsibility for fraud, waste and abuse under his watch …,” Sanchez wrote.

Medina hadn’t attended the city council meeting. Instead, he responded to councilor Sanchez by letter.

He said he had been responding to a question about Edison’s supervisor – Deputy Chief Smathers – and determined it was problematic for a lieutenant to be supervised by a deputy chief, instead of a commander. Edison was put in his position under former Chief Michael Geier, who was asked to resign in September 2020.

“The KRQE story fails to mention that, when Lt. Edison was eventually put under the supervision of a commander, that commander scrutinized his time sheets and found discrepancies, which were reported up the chain of command and investigated,” Medina wrote.

As for Sanchez’s comments about the time sheet being the most important document a police officer deals with, Medina said he strongly disagrees.

“Frankly, that approach to the job is the type of culture we have been changing since I have been chief,” Medina wrote. “I want officers’ top priorities to be fighting crime, the quality of their work and their service to the community. I want officers to excel at investigations and produce effective criminal complaints that lead to the prosecution of criminals … . A time sheet, while important to document an officer’s work, should not be an officer’s top priority.”

In a statement to the Journal, Councilor Lewis said rather than “criticizing a fair question from a councilor with a long-time public safety record,” the chief should “take responsibility for fraud and abuse in his own department, and do his job.”

“The culture that needs to change in the department starts with the chief and the mayor,” Lewis wrote. “Frankly, his comments deserve a vote of no confidence from the council. The chief should make a public apology to Councilor Sanchez and to the Council. Shut up and do your job, or resign.”

In response, APD spokesman Gallegos said that Medina is focused on fighting crime and supporting officers who protect the community.

“We are not going to get involved in petty council politics,” Gallegos said.

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