Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota’s office confirmed this week that its investigation of the Southampton Town Police Department is continuing, with a focus on what the lead investigator described as years of “troubling” policies and practices within the department.
The D.A.’s division chief of investigations, Chris McPartland, said this week that his office’s now months-long investigation of the town department has turned its focus to the oversight, recording and tracking of days worked by police officers and time off accrued under the union contracts.
“Our investigation into troubling administrative practices in the Southampton Town Police Department is ongoing,” Mr. McPartland said. “Our review of procedures for maintaining evidence and recording time and accruals to police supervisors goes on.”
Mr. McPartland would not comment on the findings of the investigation, with regard to how time-off accruals—which typically translate into monetary payments, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars, when an officer retires—have been tabulated in the past, but said that investigators plan to issue a report to the town early next year.
The Town Board and comptroller’s office has raised issues about the tracking of police officer time accruals in recent years. The issue was a topic during the interviews for new chiefs in 2011 following the retirement of longtime Chief James Overton. His successor, Chief William Wilson Jr., also used the issue in his ultimately unsuccessful pitch to the Town Board for $700,000 in technological upgrades at the department headquarters.
Following concerns raised earlier this year by new Town Comptroller Len Marchese, the town hired an independent accounting firm to conduct an audit of the police department’s accrual system and reporting.
“We made the decision to do an internal audit of time in attendance, because they use a different system over there than we do here at Town Hall,” Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst said this week, adding that she was unaware the issue had become a focus of the D.A.’s investigations of the Town Police. “The comptroller felt there was a need to make sure the process was one that translated into how we calculate it. We had a number of retirements go out, and we wanted to reassure ourselves that the calculations that were made for those payouts were done properly.”
The supervisor added that the audit did not uncover any discrepancies or concerns as a result of the accountants’ analysis. But a draft version of the audit obtained by The Press, written by accountants from Cullen & Danowski C.P.A., paints a picture of a loosely overseen system of attendance and accrual tracking that does not log who makes entries to time records—and, in some cases, allows supervisory officers to edit their own records. The lax controls on the accrual system apparently led to the town overpaying five retiring officers more than $44,000 in compensation for unused accrued time off last year.
The auditors also detail that in a limited sampling of selected officers’ time records, they uncovered several discrepancies between accrual reporting and the actual apparent time logged on the job. In one instance, an officer failed to work the full number of annual days required under his union contract. In another instance, the auditors found that the department’s activity log had no activity entries for an officer on two separate days that he was shown as being on duty. In others, various officers exceeded the number of sick days allowed in their contracts.
Southampton Town Patrolman’s Benevolent Association Vice President Kevin Gwinn said, “I’m not familiar with any problems with accruals with the police department ... but members of the PBA do not have any control of documenting accruals. As a PBA member I can only request an addition to an accrual, but I don’t have the right to approve it.”
The auditors noted that Chief Wilson had implemented a slight change to the system that required that any superior officer who was entering and approving his own time records notify the chief via email to verify the entry.
Reached by telephone, Chief Wilson, who resigned earlier this month and will officially retire from the department on December 1, said that the concerns with oversight of the time records was something he had tried to resolve throughout his 18-month tenure with the town: “I expressed my concern regarding time off multiple times to the Town Board. Whether it’s mistakes or intentional manipulation of records, you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensated absence time that people are entitled to. God forbid anybody shine a light on it ... you become an albatross very quickly.”