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January 28, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, January 28, 2005

'Moonlighting' utilities workers under investigation 'Moonlighting' utilities workers under investigation (January 28, 2005)

Crew of four to six city workers suspected of doing private water/sewer jobs while getting overtime pay, but one worker claims racism

by Bill D'Agostino and Jay Thorwaldson

Several Palo Alto utility workers are being investigated -- and one has been placed on administrative leave -- for allegedly doing outside work for homeowners, using city equipment and possibly charging the city overtime.

Top city officials confirmed that an outside investigator has been hired, but provided scant details. When the civil investigation of the alleged moonlighting is completed within the next few weeks, it could be turned over to the police department and district attorney for possible criminal charges.

When doing water and sewer jobs for the city, the workers allegedly continued working on private property and receiving pay from homeowners, according to sources. City officials said they don't yet know how many outside jobs or how many thousands of dollars may be involved.

Although just one worker has been placed on administrative leave, "it goes beyond this one individual," City Attorney Gary Baum said.

The employee placed on leave, 41-year-old utility installer Byron Johnson, admitted to once "misusing equipment" -- using a city dump truck to transport his own cement -- but said he was otherwise innocent. He also accused the city of "borderline racism."

"They don't have facts," Johnson said. "They have rumors."

Johnson -- who has union representation and is black -- initially declined to comment, saying he wanted to give the city "the benefit of the doubt." But then he accused the city of investigating him but not others who have misused equipment or stolen from the city.

"They're trying to single me out," he said. He said he's worked for the city for nearly five years and has been on leave for almost three months.

"I'm one of God's creations and they just don't like me," he added. "There's racism involved and there's also defamation of character. ... I expect discipline, not termination."

Co-workers were told an entire crew in the install and repair section -- four to six workers -- may have been involved in the moonlighting for at least three, possibly four, years, according to sources.

"We only know of months, but that's all we know of at this moment. I don't know that it's not longer than that," Baum said.

"No one else has been conclusively implicated," he added. "You only put someone on administrative leave when you feel it's appropriate or necessary to have them leave the workplace."

The disclosure of the investigation and allegations shocked and angered many of the 40-plus workers in the Water-Gas-Wastewater division of the Utilities Department, a tight-knit group that works out of the Municipal Services Center on East Bayshore Road.

"There's so much tension among co-workers in our yard about this issue," one worker told the Weekly. "Other than those who may be involved, we want this cloud removed from us. It makes the whole group look bad. It's very sad."

"We're treating it really seriously," Assistant City Manager Emily Harrison said. She said city officials haven't yet received the investigator's report -- the first step in a continuing investigation. "We are making it a top priority and want to do a thorough investigation as expeditiously as possible," she said.

The investigation reportedly began last fall when a Menlo Park police officer saw a Palo Alto Utilities Department truck parked in Menlo Park, with workers doing either water or sewer installation at a private home. Menlo Park police reported the incident to Palo Alto police officials.

In late December, the City Attorney's office hired an outside investigator after "we realized the scope of the matter," Baum said. "We were made aware of different, various allegations and decided to give it a much harder look."

The investigation is being paid for by the Utilities Department. The city is also investigating why managers did not detect the alleged problem sooner.

In a November 2003 audit, City Auditor Sharon Erickson recommended that the Utilities Department strengthen controls on overtime to "ensure consistency and accuracy." She reported that in 2002-2003 overtime payments to electrical and water-gas-wastewater employees totaled nearly $1 million.

After investigating 15 timecards and logs, Erickson found 11 "minor discrepancies" in 152 entries, including two times the hours on the timecards did not match the log.

Utilities Assistant Director Scott Bradshaw said the auditor's recommendation had been followed. He also said he was "extremely disappointed" by the new allegations.

The city faced a similar crises in 1994, when two utility workers were charged with falsifying timecards, collecting overtime pay for weekends they didn't work and playing golf while working.

Staff Writer Bill D'Agostino can be e-mailed at [email protected]

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