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Deputies collected pay while off the job

Sheriff blames 'misunderstanding' for payroll errors

ORLANDO, Fla. – At 7 a.m. on a Sunday in January, three sheriff's deputies reported to work for an overtime shift at Orange County's juvenile courthouse.  Their job was to provide security during court hearings for juvenile offenders who had been taken into custody overnight, as well as cases involving children removed from their homes.

Like most weekends and holidays, the caseload was relatively light.  On that particular Sunday, eight children appeared in court.  The proceedings were over by 8:30 am.

After the judge adjourned for the day, the three deputies left the Juvenile Justice Center, including one who had changed out of his uniform and into casual clothes before driving off in his personal vehicle.

In a courthouse logbook sign-in sheet, the deputies indicated they each had worked a total of 90 minutes that morning.

Yet payroll records obtained by News 6 show each of the deputies billed taxpayers for four hours of work, more than double the compensation they were entitled.

That was not the only occasion when court deputies improperly submitted more hours on their payroll records than they actually worked, News 6 has learned.

Over a one-year period, every one of the 27 deputies who volunteered for the juvenile courthouse overtime shift was paid for time they were actually off the clock, sheriff's officials confirm.   It happened on all but one of the 112 weekend and holiday shifts, records show.

Between January 2015 and January 2016, records show the Orange County Sheriff’s Office collectively compensated court deputies for 600 hours of overtime during which they were away from the courthouse, costing the agency in excess of $14,000 a year.  That estimate does not include additional wages collected by deputies who were eligible for time-and-a-half pay.

“It does raise questions, and I’m very uncomfortable with this,” said Orange County Comptroller Martha Haynie.  As the local government’s elected auditor, Haynie is troubled to learn employees were paid with tax dollars despite not being present.

“That kind of lack of accountability raises all kinds of questions about what other things may be going on,” said Haynie, who reviewed records obtained by News 6 but has not conducted her own independent investigation.

Payroll errors a “misunderstanding”

Sheriff's officials acknowledged the deputies should have only been paid for the hours they were actually working at the courthouse.

"There was a misunderstanding," said Capt. Angelo Nieves, a Sheriff's Office spokesman.  "There was no malice identified."

Nieves suggested the 27 deputies had confused the courthouse overtime shift with an off-duty assignment, such as when officers are hired to provide additional security at private or community events.  Unlike overtime assignments, deputies working off-duty shifts are guaranteed a minimum of 4 hours of pay regardless of how many hours they actually work, sheriff's officials confirmed.

One particular court deputy who volunteered for 66 shifts at the juvenile courthouse collected more than $3,700 in unearned overtime pay, records indicate.   But for most of the court deputies, the inaccurate payroll submissions resulted in only a few hundred dollars a year in extra income.

“(The deputies) were very open about it.  No one was trying to hide anything,” said Capt. Eric Fortinberry, who oversees security operations at all of Orange County’s court facilities.

According to Fortinberry, the deputies genuinely believed they were allowed to claim 4 hours on their payroll records, in part because their fellow deputies may have been doing the same thing for years earlier without being told it was improper.

“They had no way of knowing they weren’t doing the right thing,” he said.  “It appeared there was not a clear enough mandate.”

The deputies’ direct supervisors were also unaware that their subordinates were submitting inaccurate payroll entries, said Fortinberry.

“There is no (single) supervisor who checks all of the payroll on the juvenile weekend duty,” he said.

Deputies who volunteer for the weekend and holiday shifts come from different squads and report to different supervisors.  Some of those supervisors may have also been mistaken about the courthouse overtime rules, Fortinberry indicated.

“That’s the agency’s responsibility, and the agency needs to take responsibility for the lack of oversight and the lack of clarity,” said Haynie.  “I think it would be appropriate for the Sheriff’s Office to do some further investigation into it.”

No deputies were disciplined for submitting inaccurate payroll records, nor did OCSO ask those deputies to reimburse the agency once the oversight was discovered.

“If we found a situation like this in an audit, and we have found situations where people were paid inappropriately, my policy is to (require the employee) to pay it back,” said Haynie.  “Not all at once, especially if it is due to a misunderstanding.  But public dollars shouldn’t be spent on people who aren’t giving some return for that.”

One particular deputy who worked on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday indicated on payroll records he had worked 7 hours, even though the courthouse sign-in sheet showed deputies were at the courthouse only 2- 1/2 hours.

When News 6 inquired about this discrepancy, OCSO acknowledged the deputy had incorrectly entered his holiday hours on payroll records, calling it an “oversight”.  The deputy typically works a seven-hour shift on other Mondays, according to the agency.

OCSO amended that deputy’s pay to correct the error.  Even though the agency indicated its employees should have only been compensated for the hours they were on-duty, OCSO paid the deputy for 4 hours on that federal holiday, not just the 2 1/2 hours the deputy was actually present.

News 6 is not identifying the deputies involved, in part because none have been accused of wrongdoing by OCSO.  Also, sheriff’s officials acknowledged deputies were signing in for each other on the courthouse attendance log and occasionally wrote down the wrong names, raising questions about the accuracy of the agency’s own records.

Nieves indicated the sheriff was unaware of the overtime errors until News 6 first inquired about it in late January.

"We undertake our fiscal responsibility with all due diligence," said Nieves.  "Sheriff (Jerry) Demings immediately reacted to your inquiry, and after review, corrected this situation to make sure the best practices are now in place."

Days after News 6 first inquired about OCSO’s overtime procedures, Fortinberry issued a memo to deputies clarifying their responsibilities.

Memo

"The hours are 0700-1100 each shift," Fortinberry wrote.  "The total number of hours submitted via individual payroll entries must reflect the actual on-duty time on-site at the Juvenile Justice Center."

Deputies ordered to patrol empty courthouse

Fortinberry’s memo also instructed deputies what to do when court adjourns early: walk around the mostly empty courthouse while waiting for their shift to end.

“If the presiding judge concludes the court proceedings prior to 1100 hours and there are no further duties relating to the judge or any juveniles, personnel working the detail will conduct a patrol rotation of the Juvenile Justice Center,” the memo stated.  “This will include the interior areas of the building, the main lobby/front door area, and the perimeter of the Juvenile Justice Center.”

When the juvenile courthouse is closed to the public, as it is on holidays and weekends after court adjourns, OCSO does not typically provide security.  Instead, the building is patrolled by a private security contractor, G4S Secure Solutions USA, Inc., which is hired by the county.

Although deputies must remain at the courthouse for four hours, records show the deputies are only needed for court-related duties an average of two hours and 15 minutes.

“It seems terribly unproductive,” said Doug Head, a member of the bipartisan government watchdog group County Watch.  “They’re looking for something to keep the deputies on the clock instead of sending them home.”

However, Head is quick to acknowledge that he does not know what the Sheriff’s Office could do differently to get more value for taxpayers’ dollars.

“It’s a complex situation,” he said.  “It is one of those cases where I don’t have a better idea, other than providing (the deputies) with some kind of learning program (after court adjourns).”

The county’s comptroller said she is troubled with the concept of paying deputies to remain in the courthouse after the judge goes home.

“That’s sort of giving a blessing to being paid for not doing anything,” said Haynie.  “I think for them to be acknowledging they’re just wandering around empty halls doesn’t seem like they’re respecting their responsibilities.”

Fortinberry concedes the current staffing arrangement at the juvenile courthouse is not ideal.

“I'm certain there are people who would have concerns about deputies in an empty building getting paid,” he said.

However, due to the unique requirements and unusual hours of the shift, Fortinberry said he has few other cost-effective options.

Deputies who volunteer for the overtime shift drive their personal vehicles to the juvenile courthouse directly from their homes.  They do not have patrol cars to conduct other law enforcement duties after court adjourns.

“That’s not feasible,” said Fortinberry, who points out that some of the court deputies are not currently certified by the agency to do outside patrol work.

Likewise, not every patrol deputy is eligible to work at the courthouse, since the position requires special training in judicial procedures, he said.

If the agency were to assign deputies to the courthouse shift as part of their regular work schedule, the agency would also have to add supervisors and pay deputies who call in sick, according to Fortinberry, driving up the cost to taxpayers.

“I just didn’t see another way to do it,” he said.

Juvenile court proceedings vary by county

Orange County’s Juvenile Justice Center is one of the few juvenile courthouses in the state that is open on weekends and holidays.  Located adjacent to the juvenile detention center where young offenders are housed, the courthouse is also where juveniles arrested in Osceola County appear before a judge.

Juveniles taken into custody on weekends and holidays in Seminole and Brevard counties appear before judges in courtrooms located inside adult jails.  In Lake and Marion counties, a judge travels to the juvenile detention center for delinquency hearings.

In Miami-Dade County, juvenile cases are heard inside a courtroom at an adult courthouse on weekends and holidays, according a court administration spokeswoman.  Members of the Miami-Dade Police Department’s Court Services Bureau provide security at that courthouse.

“The weekend shift is built in to (the officers’) normal work week,” said MDPD spokesman Alvaro Zabaleta.  “No overtime is paid to cover the weekend shifts.”  He indicated officers fulfill other administrative duties after court adjourns.

Besides being the most cost-effective way to staff Orange County’s juvenile courthouse, Fortinberry thinks deputies prefer the current arrangement.  Only employees who want to work on weekends and holidays are required to be there and are less likely to call in sick, he said.

The guaranteed 4-hour length of the shift also makes it financially worthwhile for the deputies, particularly those who must drive a long distance to get to the courthouse, Fortinberry indicated.

But he does not believe those deputies should be allowed to go home when court adjourns and still collect overtime wages.

“It is beyond my position to be able to say, ‘You can sit at your house and I’ll pay you’.  And it’s not good stewardship either,” Fortinberry said.


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