Politics & Government

Payroll issues led to Pierce Transit safety chief’s paid leave

Pierce Transit’s public safety chief was put on paid leave two months ago after an internal audit cited problems with timekeeping and payments to a pair of off-duty Tacoma police officers who reported to him, according to documents obtained by The News Tribune.

Rod Baker was placed on leave by Pierce Transit Chief Executive Officer Lynne Griffith while an outside investigator examines “various payment issues to some of our outsourced officers.” Those contracted Tacoma and Lakewood police officers help oversee transit officers under Baker.

The draft internal audit suggests command officers were padding their hours, though their attorney disputes it. The audit of a two-week pay period in September cited:

 • Hours reported as worked by Tacoma and Lakewood police officers were significantly higher than the hours scheduled by Pierce Transit.

 • Timecards were not reviewed by Baker or his designee. A signature stamp was used for the signature of the chief and for the commander from Tacoma police.

 • Activity reports for the two Tacoma police officers did not match the hours reported and paid on their timecards.

 • One Tacoma officer reported 30 hours of work for interviewing, writing a follow-up report and carrying out a background check on one employee. “The 30 hours reported seem excessive,” Pierce Transit assistant finance manager Liz Passmore wrote.

An email on Nov. 19 from Passmore, who conducted the audit, indicates the problems had been resolved. That same day, Griffith placed Baker on leave, according to her memo released through a public records request.

Griffith said in her memo that Baker’s leave was not done for disciplinary reasons.

“Your absence during this process helps to protect you and the Agency from any claims of impropriety during the investigation process,” she wrote.

Deputy Chief Bill Cassio, a Pierce County Sheriff’s Department employee, is the interim public safety chief.

Baker’s attorney told a reporter recently that Baker won’t comment because Pierce Transit has told him not to.

“My client was directed not to discuss the matter while the investigation was pending,” said Mitchell Riese, Baker’s lawyer.

The News Tribune first reported Dec. 26 on Baker’s leave and the investigation, though details about both were vague at the time.

Questions to Pierce Transit have been referred to Transit Board chairwoman and Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland, who has repeatedly refused to comment because the investigation is ongoing.

Pierce Transit employs 41 off-duty contract officers from Tacoma police and 50 from Lakewood police, said agency spokeswoman Carol Mitchell. In addition, it employs 12 full-time deputies with the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department as transit police, Mitchell said.

Records obtained by The News Tribune show Pierce Transit audited its payroll for six off-duty contract officers — four from Tacoma police and two from Lakewood police. The draft version of the audit was critical of Tacoma police Lt. Mark Feddersen and officer James Smith; they were commander and assistant commander, respectively, under Baker.

Feddersen and Smith monitor other off-duty officers from Tacoma’s police force who help with transit security. Feddersen and Smith’s duties include creating schedules, handling payroll and investigating complaints.

The audit also examined but was not critical by name of Lakewood police Sgt. Anders Estes, the Pierce Transit commander for off-duty Lakewood police.

Joan Mell, attorney for Feddersen, Smith and Estes, said the three officers haven’t done anything wrong and didn’t pad their hours.

They were paid only for the hours they worked, Mell said.

She said the audit miscalculated the hours Feddersen and Smith entered on reports.

“It’s a miscommunication,” Mell said.

According to Passmore’s audit memo on Oct. 21, Feddersen and Smith each reported between 40 and 75 hours during each two-week pay period in 2013 for Pierce Transit, in addition to their full-time work for Tacoma police.

“If these officers work full time for the TPD, it indicates that they have not had a day off in 2013,” Passmore wrote. “While these hours may be accurate, from an audit standpoint this warrants further investigation.”

Mell said Smith and Feddersen are salaried with Pierce Transit for 20 hours a week each at an hourly rate of $53.81. If they worked additional hours on patrol, they were paid a lesser hourly rate, she said.

The two Tacoma officers were paid to work 20 hours a week in command, but recorded it all on Saturdays and Sundays, they said in documents.

“In an effort to easily record the hours on the timecards, we just picked Saturday and Sunday to lump the administrative time, but the tasks to be completed are continuous by nature,” they wrote.

Estes was not salaried and reported his hours according to the days he worked, Mell said. And he manually signed timecards, the audit said.

Feddersen and Smith said the audit mistakenly reported they recorded just a half-hour of administrative time on each Saturday and Sunday. They said the phrase, “one-half administrative hours,” referred to the 20 hours worked weekly by each command officer.

Feddersen and Smith said that Smith’s report of working 30 hours to do a background investigation was “reasonable, very fast and efficient.” They said it’s 10 hours less than the minimum 40 hours recommended by Tacoma police training documents.

Baker had earlier signed off on the information Feddersen provided for the audit.

“Did you have any changes or questions to the audit information we provided or were the responses adequate to answer the questions?” Feddersen asked.

“No it looks real good Mark,” Baker replied in an email Oct. 30.

At the agency’s direction after the audit, the two Tacoma officers started recording their hours on a daily basis instead of lumping their 20 hours together on the weekends.

Feddersen wrote Passmore and Baker on Nov. 18, noting changes had been made. “Since our audit meeting, we went through a payroll period and made the agreed-upon adjustments,” Feddersen wrote. “Were there any issues or further adjustments to be made, as we prepare the upcoming payroll?”

Passmore replied on Nov. 19: “The time was recorded daily and the approval signatures were manual as requested so at this time I think that is all we requested.”

Baker was placed on leave the same day.

Mell alleges the shake-up was the result of a power play by Cassio that could allow more deputies who work at the Sheriff’s Department to replace off-duty Tacoma and Lakewood officers on transit duty.

That’s what Mell wrote on Dec. 18 to Seattle lawyer Jeffrey Coopersmith, who is carrying out the independent investigation for Pierce Transit.

“It looks like this outside investigation may have been precipitated for reasons of self-promotion and to achieve a strategic advantage in transitioning these contract services to Pierce County exclusively,” Mell wrote Coopersmith.

Coopersmith said he was not authorized to comment on the investigation.

Cassio, the acting chief, referred all questions to Mitchell, who declined comment because of the “fact-finding process underway.”

But Sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer denied Cassio was working behind the scenes to become become transit security chief.

“That’s 100 percent not true,” Troyer told a reporter Friday.

Cassio already was slated to go back to patrol for the Sheriff’s Department when Pierce Transit asked if he could stay on through the investigation, Troyer said.

Troyer also said Cassio hasn’t sought to assign more Sheriff’s deputies to transit work.

“We’ve done nothing to insert more of our people in there,” Troyer said. “We’re not trying to take anybody’s off-duty officers away from them.”

Meanwhile, Baker is entering his 10th week of leave, at the rate of his annual salary of $123,272. Strickland said she doesn’t know when the investigation will be complete.