In a City Hall press conference last Friday, Mayor Shayne Gallo claimed his predecessor, James Sottile, knew that former Kingston fire chief Rick Salzmann had been paid for days he did not work — and that Sottile condoned the practice.
Gallo leveled the accusation one day after Salzmann was arrested on misdemeanor charges, alleging that he falsified records to cover up the payroll irregularities.
“There was an agreement between the prior mayor and the former fire chief to be able to literally take time off, to be paid for time off that he did not earn,” said Gallo who worked as an assistant corporation counsel in Sottile’s administration. “I had no knowledge of that and if I had I would have advised that mayor, ‘What you’re doing is unlawful.’”
Gallo’s comments followed a damning report from the Office of the State Comptroller which detailed a system of sloppy, mostly unverified record-keeping on employee overtime and vacation accruals. Among the findings was that senior city employees, including Salzmann, essentially tracked their own time and vacation accruals and time-off requests were handled on a largely informal basis.
The report examined internal controls over time and attendance, buyout payments and other forms of compensation for city employees between January 2011 and January 2012. State auditors later expanded the scope of the probe, at Gallo’s request, after Salzmann and Deputy Chief Chris Rea were suspended in January 2012, just weeks into the new administration, for allegedly obtaining payment for days when they did not work. The report states that records show Salzmann did not record taking 36 vacation days in 2010 and 2011; and that Rea put in timesheets to be paid for days when he was working as an instructor at the State Fire Academy in Montour Falls. The report also found that Salzmann was allowed to cash in unused vacation days in excess of the 30-day maximum allowed under his contract with the city.
While the comptroller’s report found evidence of overpayments to both Salzmann and Rea neither man has been hit with criminal charges for the alleged misappropriation. Instead, Salzmann is charged with four misdemeanor counts of offering a false instrument for filing. Those charges, according to District Attorney Holley Carnright, stemmed from an incident in late 2011 which occurred as City Comptroller John Tuey was putting in place a new system of centralized record keeping to better track employee compensation. After an audit of Salzmann’s pay records revealed that he had been paid for seven days when he was on vacation, Carnright said, Tuey asked the chief to correct and resubmit the vacation accrual log. The resubmitted form, according to Carnright, acknowledged the erroneous payment for seven days but “discovered” another seven days for which Salzmann claimed he had worked but not been paid.
“Instead of simply acknowledging the errors in the time log he had submitted,” Carnright wrote in a press release, “we believe Chief Salzmann altered and resubmitted his vacation accrual log for 2011.”
He said it was OK …
As for the findings in of payments for days not worked, Carnright said that Salzmann, who cooperated with the inquiry, offered explanations that “remove much of this inquiry away from criminal prosecution.” Among the explanations cited by Carnright was Salzmann’s claim that Sottile had expressly authorized him not to deduct vacation days for time when he was out of town but called upon to “work on Fire Chief matters.” Carrnight said that one example of the arrangement was in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, when Salzmann was away on vacation but maintained contact with the department and issued orders by phone.
Carnright confirmed that Sottile had been interviewed during the investigation, but he declined to say whether the mayor had confirmed Salzmann’s claim that he had been instructed to hold onto some vacation days. Sottile, meanwhile declined to comment on the matter, except to call Gallo’s claim that he had acted unlawfully “ridiculous.”
But Gallo called the supposed agreement emblematic of a “culture of entitlement” the prevailed during the Sottile administration. It was, Gallo said, a system which bred public mistrust and cynicism about city government and one which he vowed to end once and for all. In addition to Sottile, Gallo blasted the Common Council for failing to question the payments or enact stricter oversight.
“There were no internal controls, no supervision, no oversight and no questions from the common council when these payments were made,” said Gallo.
Senor rebuts Gallo
Bob Senor, who has served on the council under five mayors since 1989 rejected Gallo’s claim that he and fellow aldermen bore a share of the blame for the lax oversight. Senor pointed out — and Tuey confirmed — that an outside auditor paid to examine the city’s finances annually, had never brought the issue to the council’s attention. Senor added that he had, over the years heard rumors of various financial irregularities, but had found his questioning thwarted by a system which placed payroll oversight firmly with the executive branch. Senor added that the mayor was making a mistake in placing the blame for the sloppy financial controls on his predecessor.