Tacoma officers cleared in Transit investigation, but potential for wrongdoing found

Inquiry finds public safety chief overstepped authority by approving salary for off-duty officers

Staff writerFebruary 28, 2014 

An outside investigator for Pierce Transit found no evidence that two off-duty Tacoma police officers over-reported or falsified the hours they worked helping supervise transit security officers.

The investigator’s report released late Thursday also says Pierce Transit public safety Chief Rod Baker did not improperly approve hours for off-duty officers working for the transit system.

But the document states Baker “likely exceeded” his authority by authorizing the two off-duty Tacoma police officers to work on a salary – instead of by the hour as specified by their contracts – without approval from Chief Executive Officer Lynne Griffith or Pierce Transit’s board.

The 25-page report is also critical of the transit system’s management and payroll system for the two command staff members, saying “it provides the opportunity for inappropriate and potentially illegal behavior.”

Griffith put Baker on paid administrative leave Nov. 19 after an internal audit cited problems with timekeeping and payments to the two Tacoma officers who reported to Baker.

Pierce Transit spokeswoman Carol Mitchell said Baker remains off the job. He’s been on leave for 14 weeks at the rate of his annual salary of $123,272.

Baker’s attorney, Mitchell Riese, declined to comment Friday.

In his report dated Feb. 5, Seattle attorney Jeffrey Coopersmith said he found no documents supporting statements from the two Tacoma officers, Lt. Mark Feddersen and officer James Smith, that they regularly worked more than 20 hours per week for Pierce Transit and never less than the 20 hours a week for which they were paid.

“Indeed, there is no way to know how long any of their administrative or management tasks take, because no one is tracking that information, including Lt. Feddersen and Officer Smith,” Coopersmith wrote. “Again, although we have found nothing showing that the current liaisons are dishonest, the system presents an opportunity for abuse.”

Feddersen proposed in mid-2012 that he and Smith begin charging Pierce Transit on a salaried basis, according to the investigative report released to The News Tribune through a public records request.

Baker agreed because the change would save Pierce Transit money, Coopersmith wrote. Under this system, Feddersen and Smith recorded 20 hours a week on their time cards – 10 hours on Saturdays and 10 hours on Sundays.

Their attorney, Joan Mell, has said they were salaried for 20 hours a week at an hourly rate of $53.81. Feddersen and Smith were commander and assistant commander, respectively, under Baker. They monitor other off-duty officers from Tacoma’s police force who help with transit security.

Sgt. Anders Estes, who was the command liaison for off-duty Lakewood police officers, said he tracked his time to the nearest hour and recorded it on the days he worked, which Coopersmith verified.

Feddersen said through his attorney Friday that “we are pleased the investigation confirmed the officers did nothing wrong.”

But Feddersen said he and Smith were disappointed the investigation didn’t compare their heavier workload to that of the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department’s two full-time supervisors. “This comparison could have summarily eliminated questions about TPD Administrative hours,” Feddersen said.

Mell represents Feddersen, Smith and Estes.

Coopersmith’s report says Pierce Transit paid Feddersen $56,740 and Smith $59,077 in 2013. That’s in addition to what they earn as full-time officers for Tacoma police.

Mell said acting public safety chief Bill Cassio, a Pierce County Sheriff’s Department employee, fired Estes on Feb. 21 because he raised questions about Cassio’s leadership to Pierce Transit’s Chief Operations Officer Doug Middleton.

Mitchell and Cassio said the agency doesn’t comment on personnel matters.

Griffith, the transit agency CEO, said the report is "self explanatory and stated clearly."

"I thought it was thorough and fairly stated," she said in a text message.

Newly elected Transit Board Chairman Rick Talbert said the report shows there are gaps in the agency’s systems, creating “opportunities for things to potentially occur.”

Talbert said Friday that the agency needs to use the report – which he had not seen in its entirety – to “make sure all of the needed systems are in place so that we can assure accountability.”

“I’m certainly relieved that the report didn’t show there was any intentional wrongdoing going on,” said Talbert, also a Pierce County Council member.

Mitchell said Middleton, who is Baker’s immediate supervisor, will make the final decision on Baker’s status with Pierce Transit.

After the internal audit in October, Feddersen and Smith started submitting daily activity reports for each administrative task they perform, Coopersmith wrote.

In February, Pierce Transit started using an “enhanced process” where the command liaisons enter the hours they work by task on one report each day, Mitchell said. They are reviewed by the acting and deputy chiefs, verified with scheduled shifts and inputted into the payroll system, she said.

Mitchell said Pierce Transit doesn’t know the final costs of Coopersmith’s investigation. She expects its will be paid from the agency’s legal services budget.

Steve Maynard: 253-597-8647

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