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Cover Story: Protection Racket

Public housing security grant is a cash cow for cops

By Leslie Blade · December 10th, 2003 · Cover Story
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The laws of nature hold that a person can't be in two different places at the same time.

The policies of the Cincinnati Police Department include a similar rule: If an officer works an off-duty security detail for another employer -- a shopping center, a church festival or an apartment complex -- he must have a 15-minute break between his police shift and his second job.

Anyone who works for hourly wages knows the time clock doesn't start when you leave for work, but rather when you start the job. The police department's 15-minute rule reflects the need to travel from one job to the next; it's a simple way to prevent an employer from being cheated.

But the rule is routinely broken by police officers working off-duty for the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA).

A CityBeat review of more than 4,000 CMHA worksheets found that, during a six-month period in 1998, more than 75 percent of the police officers working off-duty details for the agency violated the 15-minute rule. Between June 13 and Nov. 24, 1998, Lt. Stephen Wilger -- who ran a CMHA detail -- violated the 15-minute rule more than 50 times.

The problem isn't a harmless procedural violation; the quarter-hour segments add up to thousands of dollars in wages paid to officers whose CMHA starting time can't possibly be the same as the ending time of their police shifts. They can't be in both places at once, but they are sometimes paid as though they were.

More importantly, violations of the 15-minute rule are perhaps the least serious of the abuses committed by Cincinnati Police officers working off-duty for CMHA. Furthermore, records show the problem has continued over the past five years.

Working two jobs is hardly unusual. Many people, including police officers, have part-time jobs to supplement their full-time incomes. A few commonly understood rules apply:

· You have to work the hours claimed for any wages received.

· You may not bill two employers for the same hours.

· You may not falsely claim to have done work that others actually performed.

Violation of those rules amounts to theft. Violation of those rules -- and more -- appears so widespread in the Cincinnati Police Department that City Councilman Pat DeWine and several legal experts are calling for a federal investigation.

"If this is true, it sounds like people are committing fraud," DeWine says. "If there is probable cause to believe that someone has committed a federal crime, it ought to be referred to the federal authorities."

Hal Arenstein, president of the Greater Cincinnati Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, says an analysis of CMHA worksheets "shows a pattern of corrupt activity" by police officers. The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio should investigate officers' CMHA earnings for possible violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, according to Arenstein.

Lieutenant? What lieutenant?
CMHA, which provides affordable housing for low-income to moderate-income families, was established in 1933 under the provisions of the Ohio Housing Authority Law. CMHA says it's the 17th largest housing authority in the United States.

The agency's housing complexes include Laurel Homes, Findlater Gardens, Millvale, Winton Terrace and English Woods. The agency has been largely funded by the federal government since its founding.

For security at its properties, CMHA contracts with the Cincinnati Police Department, hiring off-duty officers to patrol its apartment complexes. The officers' salaries come from a grant by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Public Housing Drug Elimination Program.

The grant provides funds to local housing agencies for the purpose of reducing or eliminating drug-related crime in and around public housing. Money from the grants can be used for hiring security personnel, reimbursing local law enforcement agencies for additional security, physical improvements to enhance security and programs for drug prevention, intervention and treatment.

Significant amounts of money are involved. Using the HUD grant, CMHA spent the following amounts to hire off-duty Cincinnati Police officers:

1998: $523,913

1999: $474,833

2000: $723,648

2001: $684,362

2002: $306,735

2003: $315,845

This is how some of the money was spent:

· On June 17, 1998, Wilger billed the agency for the hours 3-7 p.m. (In police accounting, military hours are used; in this case, 1500-1900.) On his worksheet, Wilger wrote that he was with another officer doing surveillance for CMHA. But Wilger also submitted a second worksheet billing CMHA for the hours 3-5 p.m. on the same day. On that worksheet, he said he was in a meeting with Lt. Sandra Sizemore during those hours. CMHA's biweekly payroll report, dated July 1, 1998, shows payment for both worksheets of overlapping hours.

· On April 14, 2000, Wilger billed CMHA for the hours 12:15-5:45 p.m. On his worksheet, he wrote that he was patrolling housing complexes. But he also submitted a second worksheet, saying he was doing administrative work at 5-9 p.m. the same day. Payroll records show he was paid for both worksheets of overlapping hours.

· On May 18, 2003, Wilger billed CMHA for the hours 6 a.m.-4 p.m. His worksheet says he was patrolling housing complexes. But he also submitted a second worksheet saying he was doing administrative work between 8 a.m. and noon the same day. Payroll records show he was paid for both worksheets of overlapping hours.

Another pattern emerges with close examination of Wilger's worksheets.

On July 17, 1998, he submitted a worksheet listing himself with seven other officers working a CMHA detail at 3-8 p.m. All of the worksheets submitted by the seven other police officers list each other as present -- but not one of them lists Wilger as present. How did seven cops neglect to notice a lieutenant was working off-duty at the same place they were?

The same thing happened four days later. Wilger's July 21 worksheet lists four other officers with him on a CMHA detail. But none of those officers' worksheets list Wilger as on detail with them.

That day was noteworthy for another reason. For July 21, Wilger listed his Cincinnati Police duty hours as 7 p.m.-3 a.m., the same as the other four officers. But police line-up records show his duty hours were 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Here the use of military time is instructive; it's not as though Wilger wrote "a.m." instead of "p.m." He reported his hours as 1900-0300, whereas the line-up records show 0700-1500.

Eight days later, on July 29, Wilger's duty hours were 6:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. He submitted a CMHA worksheet saying he worked an off-duty detail with two other officers at 2:30-6 p.m. Neither of those officers listed Wilger as on the detail with them. Moreover, Wilger's CMHA worksheet conflicts with his police department worksheet. His city time sheet says he "responded to postal inspector, 15-lb. delivery" at 2:30-4 p.m.

Not only did Wilger's police department shift overlap with his CMHA job, he also charged the city for overtime.

Again on Aug. 3 and 25, 1998, Wilger submitted worksheets listing other police officers whose worksheets don't list him as present.

'Money-grabbing philosophy'
Police records show that Alphonso Peoples was arrested at 2:10 p.m. Oct. 29, 1998, for possession of heroin. Because he was maced, a Cincinnati Police "Use of Force" report had to be completed.

Officer Barbara Young, who was on-duty, reported she sprayed Peoples at 2:25 p.m. But on their CMHA time sheets, Wilger and several other officers stated they were present for Peoples' arrest -- which they stated occurred some time after 3 p.m.

Wilger later adjusted his CMHA worksheet to a 2 p.m. starting time, apparently resolving the conflict between his account and Young's. But Cincinnati Police documents report Wilger was on duty with the city 7 a.m.-3 p.m. that day.

Not only did Wilger bill CMHA for duties apparently performed on city time, but the location of Peoples' arrest, 4135 William Dooley Bypass, isn't a public housing project.

The possible misuse of taxpayers' money -- in the police department, in CMHA and sometimes in both -- isn't the only issue. Questions of justice also come into play. Police officers patrolling public housing complexes make arrests, and people can go to prison based on their testimony.

What are the implications of officers claiming to be present during arrests when they were, according to department records, elsewhere? Falsification of time sheets by police officers calls into question all sorts of statements they make, according to Charles Rittgers, president of the Ohio Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

"This makes me sad, that here is another example of misconduct by people we are supposed to trust," he says. "These guys come into court and testify against citizens in Cincinnati, and what are we to believe? If they're willing to lie in order to cheat the federal government, what are they doing on the witness stand? That is my major concern. It affects everybody, including the public's confidence in the criminal justice system."

The contradictions between the various forms filled out by the police officers who claimed they were present during Peoples' arrest is "pretty blatant," Arenstein says.

Having police officers work part-time jobs is fraught with hazard, according to former Cincinnati Police Chief Michael Snowden.

"Whole lot of problems (are) inherent with off-duty details because there are so many of them," he says. "That's why we created the off-duty unit. Now hopefully they would be getting those records and checking them. I don't know what Chief (Thomas) Streicher has done with the procedure. I know we created the unit for that very reason, to try to put some controls on all the different type of off-duty details and problems inherent with them."

Streicher, who succeeded Snowden, did not reply to repeated CityBeat requests for an interview for this story. Neither did Wilger.

The police department got a warning five years ago about problems in the way officers assigned to the Street Corner Unit -- responsible for undercover drug investigations -- were handling CMHA off-duty details. In April 1998, Lt. Dan Steers retired after commanding the unit for three years. Sgt. Dave Hall became acting commander until June, when Wilger was assigned to head the Street Corner Unit. Hall remained in the unit until January 1999, when he requested a transfer; he's now retired.

By the end of 1998, a variety of allegations were being made about the drug unit and its new leadership. A lot of changes were happening quickly. Hall took his concerns to his former boss, retired Lt. Steers. In turn, Steers approached Col. Richard Biehl, who started an audit and internal investigation.

In a taped interview Dec. 8, 1998, Steers described what he was hearing from his former employees. CMHA assignments seemed to have taken priority over police department scheduling, he said.

Steers told internal investigators that officers Cheryl Hart and James Givens told him, "All we do is Metro (CMHA) detail, everything is Metro detail. Our hours get changed so we can do Metro detail, and we are having a hard time with it."

The day shift for the Street Corner Unit had been 11 a.m.-7 p.m., the night shift 7 p.m.-3 a.m. But under Wilger's leadership, the hours kept changing. Officers worked earlier morning hours for Cincinnati Police so they could work off-duty hours for CMHA in the afternoons and evenings.

"My warning lights go on when money becomes too important in a drug unit," Steers told investigators.

When he commanded the Street Corner Unit, Steers allowed his officers to work only one four-hour detail per week. Now they were being worked almost daily.

Hall complained he would arrive at work to find that everyone came in early so they could do an eight-hour detail for CMHA. Then, later in the day, there wouldn't be enough officers left to deal with city business.

The CMHA shifts can significantly increase officers' income. Wilger, for example, earned up to $33 per hour working for CMHA. Between 1999 and August 2003, he earned more than $103,000 from his off-duty assignments.

One incident bothered Steers even after he'd retired. He directed the Northern Kentucky Drug Strike Force following his retirement from the Cincinnati Police Department, and one day he called the Street Corner Unit for assistance. It was about 2 p.m., and no one was available because they were all working for CMHA, according to Steers.

"This reinforced my thought, 'Who are they working for: Cincinnati Metro (CMHA) or Cincinnati Police?' " he told internal investigators.

In his taped statement, Steers described the attitude he'd seen in the Street Corner Unit: "Hey, don't worry about the overtime, use it. Fuck 'em. Just burn it up, we can always get more."

The result is a corrupt environment, according to Steers.

"If you can cheat the city out of a couple hours of pay, what is the difference between saying you paid an informant $50 when you only paid him $30?" he said. "Those are things I have seen over my career."

Wilger changed another policy. In a deposition given March 21, 2000, in a lawsuit against the city by two former police officers, he was asked about off-duty detail for officers in the Street Corner Unit.

"Steers had always wanted to maintain their covert status," Wilger said. "They were not permitted to do any off-duty detail, especially any off-duty detail involving uniform work."

He described the off-duty jobs as a "very substantial" source of income for uniformed officers.

Steers said undercover officers' safety would be jeopardized by working off-duty in uniform. But more than safety was involved.

"This money-grabbing philosophy is corrupting," Steers said.

'They snookered me'
Sgt. Hall met with Cincinnati Police internal investigators Dec. 8, 1998, after Steers had spoken to them.

Hall decided to come forward with allegations that Street Corner supervisors were submitting overtime slips for staff meetings that were occurring during regular duty hours. He also said that Wilger had directed him to change the daily line-up to indicate that Hall had arrived at work earlier than he did so he'd receive overtime for a meeting at the end of the day.

Hall told internal investigators that on Nov. 20, 1998, Wilger gave him a pre-typed overtime slip for two hours overtime. Hall signed and submitted it. But he said he wasn't comfortable about falsifying his work hours, so he returned to the office the next day and destroyed the form.

The same thing happened a few days later, according to Hall. On Nov. 24, he was scheduled to work from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and was in court until 12:28 p.m. When he arrived at the office, according to Hall, Wilger told him to change the daily line-up to indicate Hall was scheduled to work at 9 a.m. That way he could submit an overtime slip for a 5-7 p.m. staff meeting.

Hall told investigators he didn't submit an overtime slip that day.

On Feb. 9, 1999, Wilger was served with a memo notifying him the Internal Investigations Section had begun an investigation involving falsification of police records. His supervisory staff -- sergeants Jeffrey Butler, Scott Albert and Anthony Bassett -- received the same notices. The memo indicated the allegations would be dealt with as an administrative issue: "Improper police procedure" was checked on the form.

But Hall's notice was different. On his form, the allegation was "Theft," and "Law violation" was checked.

An audit by the Inspections Unit revealed troubling data.

"Inspections Unit questions a number of Lt. Wilger's management practices," the audit statement said. "Normal first shift hours are 1100 to 1900 hours. Lt. Wilger's duty hours normally begin four to six hours before his personnel. This frequently results in the need for him to work overtime to attend to the needs of his personnel."

But there was more.

"Lt. Wilger's duty hours seem to be scheduled around the CMHA (off-duty) details," the audit found. "The lieutenant will change duty hours to work details, but will not change his hours to attend meetings or other functions. A review of line-ups, form 202s, overtime slips and CMHA work sheets, gives the appearance of an abuse of overtime."

The audit cited 29 instances in a four-month period that included 20 CMHA details. The report also highlighted Aug. 8, 1998, when Wilger's city time actually overlapped his off-duty detail by a full hour.

In bold typeface, the audit report says, "Duty hours 0700-1500, overtime 1500-1600, CMHA 1500 to 2000 and 2000-2200 hours. There is an overlap between the overtime and the first hour of the CMHA detail."

For Aug. 28, 1998, the audit says, Wilger's "line-up shows duty hours as 0700-1500. His form 202 lists the duty hours as 1100-1900. Worked CMHA 0600-1100 hours."

Wilger wasn't the only person who found CMHA duties lucrative, nor the only supervisor whose time sheets conflict with one another.

Sgt. Butler (now a lieutenant) transferred into the Street Corner Unit at the end of July 1998. He, too, was audited and questioned about alleged falsification of police records. The audit listed several days that Butler changed his normal duty hours.

In an interview videotaped by internal investigators, Sgt. Russell Neville asked Butler why his duty hours were so frequently changed from the normal hours of 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Butler explained that the drug investigations he was involved in dictated what time he was on the city clock.

But the audit found that the duty hours were changed to accommodate off-duty details with CMHA. The off-duty hours typically were in the afternoon to early evening -- hardly what CMHA described in its contract with the Cincinnati Police Department as its "high crime" hours of 6 p.m-2 a.m.

Many times the afternoon off-duty detail would allow Butler to return to the office for a 7 p.m. staff meeting and then receive overtime for his return. Butler submitted pre-typed, pre-approved overtime slips for two hours of compensation regardless of the length of the meeting. In his interview with internal investigators, he said he thought this was acceptable.

The audit of Butler's time sheet for Aug. 5, 1998, said: "Changed duty hours to 0700-1500 to accommodate CMHA detail from 1500-1900. Attended staff meeting 1900-2100. Normal duty hours are 1100-1900."

Butler also changed duty hours to earlier times on days when he got out of court early. This would overlap hours the city was paying him.

The audit of his time sheet for July 29, 1998, said: "Attended court 0900-1210. Changed duty hours to 1000-1800. Attended staff meeting 1800-2000."

Cincinnati Police officers get three hours of compensatory time when they attend court, regardless of the actual time spent. By moving his hours to an earlier start time, Butler was, in effect, on the city clock double-time. He also received overtime for the staff meeting later that day.

The audit found that on July 31 Butler reported he was in court from 8:29-9:55 a.m., then changed his duty hours to 10 a.m.-6 p.m. so that he was on the city clock twice at the same time.

During the internal investigation, Capt. Gary Glazier told Wilger that this kind of billing activity seemed to happen frequently in his unit. He asked why Wilger allowed it.

"They must have snookered me," Wilger said.

The audit listed problems with time sheets on 25 days in the four months that Butler had been with the Street Corner Unit, including changing his working hours on 12 days and never abiding by the 15-minute rule. All of his time bled from one continuous hour to the next.

In addition, the audit found:

· Sgt. Albert joined Street Corner in October 1998. His normal work hours were 11 a.m.-7 p.m. But from Oct. 7 thru Nov. 17, Albert changed duty hours to start earlier in the day 13 times. Most of the changes were to accommodate his CMHA shift. The audit also listed nine dates within the period when Albert broke the 15-minute rule.

· Sgt. Bassett listed 17 dates in which his shift change allowed less than the required 15 minutes between jobs. The audit also accused him of changing normal duty hours to accommodate CMHA.

At the end of his interview, Capt. Glazier asked Steers if he would describe any of this activity as criminal.

"If you're adjusting hours and people are not taking time off, that's theft," he said. "I don't know how else to look at those. I think that is criminal activity."

'On my team'
In the pre-trial discovery phase of a lawsuit in federal court by two former Cincinnati Police officers, city attorneys surrendered a bizarre e-mail from Chief Streicher to Lt. Butler dated Feb. 24, 2000.

"Just thought you'd like to know that I'm always watching you or at least have someone watching you and have kept a file on everyone in the division, should I ever need some type of advantage," Streicher's e-mail said. "However, in your case, I'm confident you're on my team!"

What did Streicher and other police administrators know about misuse of the CMHA off-duty details before the money ran out earlier this year?

"If there is evidence that people knowingly overlooked theft and fraud, I think that's very, very disturbing," DeWine says. "It's our job, if we know a crime is being committed, to take action and to alert the federal authorities."

The only conclusion that resulted from the 1998 audit and internal investigation was: "Street Corner Unit supervisors failed to complete Shift Variation Forms (Form 440) when changing their hours and having less than 15 hours between shifts. ... Lieutenant Wilger and sergeants Albert, Bassett, Butler and Hall's actions are in violation of section 1.15 of the Manual of Rules and Regulations and Disciplinary Process for the Cincinnati Police Division, which states: Members shall submit all necessary reports on time and in accordance with established departmental procedures. Reports submitted by officers, as well as official statements, shall be truthful and complete. No member shall knowingly state, enter, or cause to be entered any inaccurate, false, incomplete, misleading, or improper information."

Lt. Art Frey was assigned commander of the Street Corner Unit in January 1999. At his first staff meeting, Frey's agenda included reinstatement of the original shift hours: "The normal working hour for the S.C.U. will be 1100-1900 and 1900-0300. Hours can be changed with supervisory approval, but only for valid reasons."

Wilger was transferred from the Street Corner Unit to District 1, where he currently serves, and continued to oversee the CMHA details until the money ran out in August 2003. No one was prosecuted for overcharging CMHA or the city.

But that's not always the case. Sgt. Eric Schneider was scheduled this week to stand trial on 19 felony charges -- 18 counts of theft in office and one count of tampering with records. Schneider allegedly bilked the city for court time for arrests he made while working off-duty details for Model Management, which, like CMHA, hires Cincinnati Police officers to provide extra protection for rental property in high-crime areas.

Schneider is accused of purposely charging the city for approximately 60 hours in compensatory time for attending court on arrests made when he was working off-duty. His attorney, Stewart Matthews, says his client did nothing wrong.

"He didn't commit any theft offenses, and he didn't tamper with evidence," Matthews says.

Schneider's activity came to light through another audit by the Inspections Unit.

The investigation of Schneider started early in 2003. The June 3, 2003 Cincinnati Enquirer quoted Chief Streicher saying, "Investigators' good eye and the resulting investigation shows the willingness of the police department to not turn its head. This is a good opportunity to dwell on the integrity of the agency."

But Matthews says Cincinnati Police Sgt. Joe Briede told him that no other officer's court records were examined.

Tim Smith, vice president of Model Management, says he doesn't understand why the police department is targeting Schneider.

"He was the best detail coordinator we had," Smith says. "Arrests and warnings skyrocketed when Schneider took over our detail. Our properties were never safer."

The allegedly improper billing was a mistake, Matthews says.

"This was an administrative screw-up, not criminal activity," he says. "He is out there being a cop, doing what the city wants him to do. He got comp time in the bank that he has not collected. Take it back. No money was exchanged."

But Arenstein is skeptical.

"Officer Schneider probably knew what he was doing, because most of those charges are for criminal trespassing," he says. "When he goes to court he knows he's definitely working for Model Management. Basically, these are the only cases they bust (for CMHA or Model Management). To me, that would be a light that would go on in my head that it was my off-duty detail."

Schneider's trial was recently postponed to March 1, 2004.

'We would have charged him'
Fraud by police officers against the federal government isn't unheard of.

Two months ago a federal grand jury in Kenosha, Wis., indicted a police lieutenant on charges he defrauded HUD's "Officer Next Door" program. Although the amount of money involved in the alleged fraud is only $17,000, he faces up to seven years in prison and fines as high as $500,000 if convicted.

Another Wisconsin police officer was indicted for making false statements when applying to the Department of Veterans Affairs for a home guaranty loan and a loan to refinance property she purchased through the "Officer Next Door" program.

In Texas, six police officers have been convicted of federal offenses involving HUD funds, according to the U.S. Justice Department. In 2001, HUD Secretary Mel Martinez suspended the "Officer Next Door" program because of the large amount of corruption associated with it.

Abuses of the CMHA grant are a serious matter, according to Snowden, the former Cincinnati Police chief.

"If I had known of anybody that was doing that, we would have charged him," he says. "That's something we never would have allowed. Detail coordinators should be catching those kinds of issues. A lot of times these things only come to light with complaints."

Rittgers, president of the Ohio Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, thinks a full investigation is needed.

"I hope it is somebody outside the city politics -- like somebody from the federal government -- so people would be assured that it was a fair investigation," he says. "Once an investigation starts, more will probably come out." ©

 
 
 
 

 

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