Wednesday, September 20, 2017 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews
During a Sept. 19 regular meeting, the Maywood Board of Trustees approved a payment of $106,128.13 in backpay to a village employee who alleged that he was wrongfully terminated in 2014. He has since been reinstated.
The board voted 5 to 1 in favor of the settlement, with Maywood Mayor Edwenna Perkins the lone dissenting vote. Maywood Trustee Melvin Lightford was absent.
“The reason my vote is what it is, is because this was not done correctly,” Perkins said, without going into details, right before the roll was called. “It’s not fair to the citizens of Maywood that any of this even transpired.”
On February, 29, 2016, an independent arbitrator ruled in favor of Robert Jay, a veteran Maywood public works employee who was fired in April 2014 for what the village claimed was his deliberate involvement in a scandal involving misallocated water payments.
In 2013, according to documents related to the arbitration hearing, William Barlow, who was village manager at the time, tapped the auditing firm Gould & Pakter to do a forensic audit of payments made to the village’s water department. The move happened not long after the village “received a request from a law firm for a refund for a duplicate payment for a water bill.”
The village’s finance director, Lanya Satchell, “traced the payment and found that it had been broken up into partial payments and credited to several apparently unintended accounts.”
According to the 2013 report prepared from the completed forensic audit, Gould & Pakter “analyzed 31 sets of payments of water customers of the Village that were received by the Water Department after January 1, 2012 … Using the check number, we identified the customer accounts that were actually (some wrongly) credited for each payment received.
“We found that portions of the 31 customer payments were misallocated, i.e., portions of the payments were credited to different (unintended) customer accounts. Accordingly, for each of the 31 customer payments, the designated (intended) account was not credited in full — instead other customer accounts were given improper credit for the payments received.”
Evidence indicated that Lorraine Waller, a water department clerk, had misapplied 31 customer payments totaling $60,598.79 — nearly $27,000 of that representing payments credited to the accounts of “village employees and/or affiliates.”
According to arbitration documents, Waller had evidently “produced handwritten bill payment stubs misallocating portions of certain large checks to the wrong accounts.” Those stubs were then given to a cashier, Norma Hernandez, for processing.
“Satchell determined that the payments sent in were intentionally credited to different accounts which were not intended by the payer to be credited.”
In March 2014, then-Acting Village Manager David Myers sent out letters to Waller, Hernandez and Maria Pagan, the water department supervisor at the time, notifying them that the village was looking into the matter.
Hernandez and Pagan were eventually terminated after being placed on administrative leave. Waller, who refused to cooperate with the inquiry, “invoked the Fifth Amendment, and resigned. Myers testified [in an arbitration hearing] that he believed that [Waller] moved to Georgia, and no attempt was made to subpoena her to testify at the arbitration hearing.”
Jay and another public works employee, Steven Slaughter, were also terminated after it became apparent to village officials that Waller was misapplying credits to overdue water accounts in Jay’s and Slaughter’s names, or the names of their relatives, and that both knew about the scheme. Both ended up filing grievances through their union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 705.
According to village officials, at least $1,600 worth of credits had been misapplied to a water account in Slaughter’s name. Village officials said that over $1,200 in credits had been misapplied to a water account at Jay’s home and $2,600 in credits had been misapplied to a water account at the home of Jay’s late mother.
The village found that Waller had also misapplied credits to the water account of the mother of Johnette Greenhow, Perkins’ executive assistant.
When questioned about the credits, Greenhow “denied any knowledge of them,” claiming that “she was not living at her mother’s residence during the time period when the credits were received.” According to Myers, however, the village later found out that Greenhow’s claim wasn’t true.
According to the arbitrator’s ruling, the village “failed to conduct further investigation and failed to go back to Greenhow and ask her why she had not told the truth about the fact that she was living in her mother’s home, at the time when the water account there was credited with misallocated funds.”
The arbitrator upheld Jay’s grievance and struck down Slaughter’s, ruling that the village failed to provide incontrovertible evidence that Jay knew that the payments were going to his residence and that he was treated differently than Greenhow, whose case was similar to his.
The arbitrator noted that Jay’s testimony to village officials that “he was not aware of the credits to his account” was credible based on the fact that, on multiple occasions during the period when the scheme was happening, he made cash payments to his water account on days when Waller’s misapplied credits appeared on his account.
“For example, the record shows that on March 5, 2012, [Jay] made a cash payment of $304.93 to his account, on the same day that a check, in the same amount, was improperly credited to his account,” according to arbitration documents.
“Since $304.93 was the full amount due on his account at that time, it is highly unlikely that he knew about the check amount improperly credit to his [home] account for that same amount.”
In addition, when he was informed by letter about what the misapplied credits, Jay visited Myers to “determine what was going on. It is unlikely that he would have done so if he knew or even suspected that improper credits had been applied to his water account.” The arbitrator noted that Jay eventually agreed to pay back the amount credited to both accounts in full.
The arbitrator also stated that “there is even less evidence that he knew about the credits going to the account of his deceased mother,” since the village mistakenly assumed that “Barbara Jay” was Jay’s wife, instead of his late mother.
“When [Jay] told them that Barbara Jay was in fact his deceased mother; that other relatives lived in her house; and that he was not responsible for paying the bills there, the Village continued to hold him accountable for the credits that were directed to that account.”
Jay told village officials that his sister, “who did live at their deceased mother’s home, knew Waller socially; therefore, that relationship may have been the reason Waller provided credits to that account.”
When questioned about the credits, Slaughter admitted that he knew about them, but that he thought that Waller was applying the credits “out of the goodness of her heart,” and that the credits may have been part of a program for residents with delinquent water payments.
Slaughter added that, because of Waller’s position in the water department, he simply assumed she had the authority “to forgive a debt of more than $1,000 the the owed to the Village.”
“It is difficult to believe that [Slaughter] truly concluded that just because Waller had knowledge about and processed residents’ water accounts, she also would have this far greater authority, under some program that was not named, had no written paper or brochure describing it, and no forms to fill out to apply for it,” the arbitrator explained.
The arbitrator added that, since part of Slaughter’s job was “to process shut-offs of water service for residents who were far in arrears on their water accounts. He likely had some idea that a large number of water accounts were in arrears at the Village.
“If there were a legitimate program that was available to significantly reduce a resident’s water service debt to the Village, it is difficult to believe that [Slaughter] would not have made residents aware of the program. This is especially true since he had shown a sensitivity, Ms. Satchell reported, to the consequences of residents’ inability to pay their water account debts.”
The arbitrator was particularly blunt about what she described as the disparate and unequal treatment handling by the village of Jay’s and Greenhow’s cases, which the union representing Jay and Slaughter attributed to Greenhow’s close relationship with the mayor — a claim that the mayor has stridently denied in the past.
According to the arbitrator, however, why Greenhow wasn’t terminated is less important than the fact that Jay was terminated when his case was similar, or even stronger, than Greenhow’s.
“[T]he evidence establishes that another Employee was in a situation similar — or worse — than that of [Jay], with regard to this situation, yet the Village treated her much more favorably than him, as she was not terminated or even disciplined,” the arbitrator noted, adding, “the motive for treating the two Employees differently does not matter, if their conduct is the same or similar; disparate treatment in that situation violates the tenets of just cause.”
On Sept. 29, 2016, the union representing Jay submitted backpay calculations to village officials totaling $123,201.87. After some negotiations, that amount was eventually decreased on May 15, 2017 to $101,385.93 in backpay and $4,742.20 in medical bills. VFP
Read the full arbitration order below: