By:Tom Duggan – August, 2006
One of the best parts of my job is that I get to ask lots of questions. And because of the nature of my press credentials, I am often in a position to get answers to those questions.
But let me start with a question for you.
What do you call it when a colleague at work decides to add a few hundred dollars to someone else’s paycheck every week without permission from the boss?
When I was growing up, my parents always taught me that taking things that do not belong to you (even if it is for someone else) was called stealing, theft, or embezzlement.
But when public employees in Lawrence (Payroll Clerk Joe Powieza and DPW Clerk Rhonda Lavin) take the taxpayers’ money without permission, well, the Eagle-Tribune and the Sullivan administration call it a “payroll issue.”
Now let me ask you this. What do you think would happen to you if you got caught at work accepting a pay raise that was not authorized? What would happen if you were the one who put your colleague’s pay raise through the system without permission? If your company is worth working for, you would be fired and the police would probably be notified so you could answer for your … CRIME!
But not if you work for the city of Lawrence!
No, no! In Lawrence, what happens is this: the personnel director “looks into the matter” and then recommends that someone be fired. But for some reason, he changes his recommendation, and a three-day suspension is handed out to the payroll clerk while the clerk who received the illegal raise receives no reprimand at all. The police are never called, nobody is ever fired, and (get this!) when the city tries to recoup the $5,000 plus that was taken (again, without authorization), a union grievance is filed to stop collection from her paycheck.
Get comfortable, kids, I am just warming up here.
Want to hear the best part?
Since his three-day suspension, Joe Poweiza has not returned to work as the payroll clerk. He has been out on medical leave. Guess … go ahead, just guess who the city of Lawrence put in charge of his payroll duties while Poweiza is on leave?
That’s right, Rhonda Lavin, the woman who got a little bonus in her check and never bothered to tell anyone, the woman who filed a grievance to stop the city from taking back some of the money from her paycheck.
You can’t make this stuff up!
Here’s another question: shouldn’t people who take money that doesn’t belong to them at the very least have to pay it back immediately? Especially the taxpayers’ money?
And just how did all this play out under the noses of supervisors in DPW and payroll? How did it get by those who were suppose to sign off on weekly payroll sheets? These supervisors apparently let more than $5,000 slip through the city’s fingers for months, unnoticed until some brave soul spoke up, and yet the harshest action taken was a three-day suspension for a payroll clerk?
Are you kidding me?
I am sure you have some questions now, too. But my next question is this: does everyone else in City Hall escape blame and/or responsibility for this? And has it happened in other departments? Or is this just isolated to a couple of city departments out of control in a bastion of high professional standards?
Could this still be happening? I mean, if two lowly clerks can get away with more than $5,000 of the taxpayers money without anyone noticing for months, just imagine what kind of damage a couple of supervisors can do in a year.
And since we know most of the detailed facts of what happened with a payroll check, maybe the next question to ask is why the personnel director changed his recommendation? Why was almost everyone at every level of responsibility on this matter making excuses for the people involved and tripping over themself to protect these two lowly clerks?
Surely the unions in City Hall can’t be that powerful?
And why was this covered up for more than four weeks, only to be leaked to the Eagle-Tribune with a “no big deal” spin on the story less than 24 hours after The Valley Patriot filed freedom of information requests for payroll records, phone bills and emails?
Was it to prevent exposing the incompetence of those who allowed this to happen? Or was it to prevent exposing that it wasn’t incompetence at all?
And when The Valley Patriot spoke to the city attorney about our freedom of information requests, why were we initially told that the documentation would not be provided? Why were we purposely discouraged from pursuing the story? And why are we still not getting what we asked for?
No, no … don’t answer out loud, people will think you are crazy.
You want more questions? I have plenty. Why didn’t anyone in DPW notice that an employee was illegally receiving more money in her paycheck than she was supposed to? Or maybe they did, but wouldn’t that make it worse? Why didn’t anyone in DPW notice the salary change when signing the weekly payroll sheets? Again, maybe someone did, but that would raise more questions.
Who signed those DPW weekly payroll sheets? Why didn’t Rhonda Lavin, the alleged innocent party here, notify her supervisors of the increased payment in her checks? Or did she tell someone and get told not to worry?
I told you at the beginning of my column that I love to ask questions, but I have to confess I was holding back. What I love even more is getting the answers to those questions and reporting them to you.
I can promise you this. The Valley Patriot is going to keep doing just that: asking questions and reporting the answers to you. No matter what the truth is, no matter who it involves, there will be no sacred cows. Next Month: So Many Questions Part 2!