SMITHFIELD — A small group of town employees enjoyed large benefit payouts and free dry cleaning at the public’s expense before losing their jobs for their role in a pay raise scandal in 2011, according to town records obtained under a public records request.
Earlier this month, town councilman Emery Ashley provided a trove of documents the town produced in response to a public-records request by Smithfield attorney Jack O’Hale.
“There’s suspicion and lack of trust of town hall,” Ashley said. “We get beyond that by getting a full accounting and disclosure of what happened.”
In 2011, town manager Eric Williams faced heavy criticism for approving raises for 31 employees after the town council had said that Smithfield didn’t have money for raises in the middle of a recession.
Under state law, employee pay falls under the purview of the town manager, although the manager has to answer to the city council. Smithfield council members voted to fire Williams. Town clerk Debbie Godwin and payroll clerk Lynn Powell were also forced out of their jobs for their role in the scandal.
Repeated efforts to reach Williams, Godwin and Powell have been unsuccessful.
The town documents indicate that employees used town funds for personal dry cleaning and recorded excessive amounts of sick and compensatory time. In at least one case, an employee’s record reflected work that would have occupied 20 hours daily, seven days a week.
Mayor denies involvement
The accounting contained in the records confirms pay raises – some of them double-digit percentage increases – for a number of employees. Three pay-raise forms contain the phrase “increase per Mgr. (manager) and approved by Mayor to key in.”
Mayor Daniel Evans denied approving the raises.
“I don’t have the authority to grant or give a raise, nor did I,” Evans said. “If that entry was there, someone put that in unbeknownst to me.”
The mayor said he had seen the payroll documents and had talked about them with SBI agents.
“That entry was concerning to me because it was nothing that I had a part of,” he said. “I told them (SBI agents) the same thing I’m telling you. ... They know I don’t have the authority to do that.”
Current Town Manager Paul Sabiston was hired in 2012, so he was not around when the raises were granted. But Sabiston supported the mayor’s contention, adding that it would be “extremely unusual” for the mayor to sign off on a raise.
The SBI and the Johnston County District Attorney’s Office are still investigating possible fraud stemming from the pay raises. DA Susan Doyle said investigators were still months away from deciding on criminal charges.
Abuse prompts changes
In addition to unauthorized pay raises, the documents show that town employees routinely cashed out vacation hours and comp time.
From January 2009 to June 2011, Godwin, the former town clerk, had many weeks in which she added comp time to regular work hours. On at least one occasion, according to town records, she was paid for more than 100 hours in a week, and she filed for more than 60 hours more than 20 times.
Records show she turned in vacation and sick hours on top of 40 hours of regular work during most of those weeks. For example, she filed for 40 hours of regular pay and 100 hours of vacation pay on the week of September 3, 2010. She was paid $5,911 that week, compared with $1,304 in a typical week.
Williams had a week in 2010 in which he clocked 100 hours of vacation time, 32 hours of sick pay and eight hours of regular pay. He was paid $6,722 for his work that week, compared to the $1,912 he earned in a normal week. About a month later, he recorded 75 hours of vacation pay, 16 hours of sick pay and 24 hours of regular pay. His takeaway that week was $5,525.
The practices are in sharp variance with those, for example, in use by the city of Raleigh, an official said. Gloria Hartsfield, deputy director of human resources in the City of Raleigh, said she has never seen an employee register 100 hours in a week or stack sick and vacation time on top of a regular, 40-hour week.
Supervisors in Raleigh can approve up to 70 hours of comp time a year, she said, and the city tries to encourage employees to use it sparingly. “I’m not aware of anyone abusing comp time privileges,” she said. “We try to have (supervisors) eliminate the necessity of comp time.”
Smithfield has since added sections to its employee handbook barring employees from using all of their accrued sick time at once. Supervisors may now ask employees to submit doctor’s notes anytime they take sick leave, especially if supervisors notice “a pattern of absenteeism.”
The handbook, revised last fall, also explicitly warns against using more than 40 hours of comp time in a week and cashing out comp hours. Sabiston, the current manager, helped rewrite the handbook. He said those benefits were never meant to be used that way. Rewriting the handbook emphasized the existing policy. “It’s something of a redundancy,” he said. “I made it abundantly clear, given the past.”
The records also show that office workers took advantage of a dry-cleaning privilege meant for uniformed employees.
Invoices show that Godwin ran up more than $1,350 in dry cleaning charges over a two-year period. Williams, the former town manager, charged about $470 in dry cleaning in his relatively short tenure with the town.
Ashley, the town councilman who sent the records, would not talk about individual employees. An agreement the town signed with Godwin upon her resignation bars both sides from disparaging the other.
But Ashley said the records hint at a culture in which town employees lacked oversight. “The reins just weren’t tight enough on the spending,” he said. “ It seems to me it was just a free-for-all in getting paid.”
Ashley said he was confident that Sabiston had put a stop to abuses. “(But) I don’t think Smithfield is going to get beyond these happenings until there’s a full disclosure,” he said. “Then we can heal and move on.”