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The Boston Globe

West

Lawrence

Limbo for government employees costs taxpayers thousands

Waltham’s police chief has received his annual $146,305 salary, plus a longevity bonus, for months while doing no work; he is awaiting trial for allegedly assaulting his wife. Another officer on the Waltham police force is facing federal child pornography charges, and continues to be paid after he was placed under house arrest last week.

And in cash-strapped Lawrence, three police officers, including two who have been indicted and another who is sitting in a Florida jail charged with sexual assault of a minor, have collected regular city paychecks without performing any job duties.

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Public employees can spend weeks, months, and even years on paid administrative leave after being accused of wrongdoing. They receive salaries, and qualify for raises and bonuses, as their employers weigh whether to discipline them or court cases are resolved, sometimes at a grinding pace.

And it costs local taxpayers thousands of dollars. “We can’t afford to keep paying individuals who aren’t doing any work,” said Marc Laplante, a city councilor in Lawrence who has called for the mayor to suspend the two indicted employees without pay, instead of keeping them on the payroll. “There should be total outrage.”

Yet, cities, towns, and school districts regularly use this expensive system of employment limbo.

A Newton Police Department secretary, after being accused of taking about $600 from the department, has been on paid leave for 19 months, and earned $67,228 last year. She has pleaded not guilty.

The Wellesley school district placed its business manager on paid administrative leave for four months amid controversy over her department’s operations; she earned $48,718 in regular pay before she was fired in March 2012. A Hudson police lieutenant was on paid leave for 22 months until his retirement in April 2012, earning an annual salary of $78,000 as he and the town argued over his pension benefits.

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And earlier this week, the Ashland police chief, besieged by complaints from employees, including allegations of gender discrimination, was placed on paid administrative leave. Scott Rohmer could continue to earn his $130,061 annual salary until the end of June, when his contract expires; town officials said it won’t be renewed.

Ideally, paid administrative leave lasts a few days or weeks, labor lawyers and human resource officials said.

But in some cases it can stretch longer, complicated by criminal cases, concern from employers that they could be sued if they fire a worker prematurely, and, occasionally, accusations of favoritism.

Most employees want to be back on the job and don’t want the paid leave to extend for months or years, said Bryan Decker, a labor lawyer with Sandulli Grace PC, a Boston-based law firm, who has represented unions.

For police officers, being on leave deprives them of the overtime or detail pay that they might rely on to supplement their income, Decker said.

“I know to the public, these folks are out there on a free vacation,” Decker said. “The decision to put somebody on administrative leave is the employer’s. . .  If you look at some of these cases you can question whether the employer is being as efficient as possible.”

Paid leave is the go-to option for communities handling misconduct allegations against public employees. If the allegation needs to be investigated, the employer usually doesn’t want the worker at the job site, especially if it’s a high-ranking official with access to internal documents and the ability to influence subordinates, according to human resource officials.

Communities also have to make sure that those investigations are handled properly, which usually involves hiring an outside consultant, said Peter Berry, a lawyer with Deutsch Williams Brooks DeRensis & Holland, who has represented management in labor disputes.

That can take time, he said.

Government employees are entitled to a hearing if they are going to be suspended or dismissed, and can also appeal a decision to an arbitrator, so the evidence needs to be compelling, Berry said.

“If you go ahead and fire somebody too quickly, you’re more likely to pay somebody double,” Berry said.

State law allows a short cut: If a worker is under indictment, he or she can be automatically suspended. If the worker is found not guilty at the end of the court process, the suspension must be removed and the employer must pay back wages.

When communities have the option to suspend because of an indictment, they usually take it, Berry said.

That isn’t the case in Lawrence, where Mayor William Lantigua has overruled the police chief’s request that two employees who have been indicted be placed on unpaid leave.

Patrolman Pedro Jose Lopez, who was indicted in federal court in September on bribery charges, continues to receive a paycheck from the city. As does Deputy Police Chief Melix Bonilla, who was indicted in September by an Essex County grand jury on political corruption charges; it has been alleged that he falsely transferred ownership of 13 motor vehicles from the Police Department to an auto dealer with close ties to Lantigua.

Lopez is a Lantigua supporter, and Bonilla is the mayor’s former campaign manager. Lantigua did not return phone calls for comment.

Another Lawrence officer, Carlos Gonzalez, was arrested in late February for allegedly assaulting a minor between 12 to 18 years old, and giving or selling alcohol to a minor. He hasn’t been indicted, but he is being held on bail set at $165,000, according to Polk County Sheriff’s Department officials in Florida.

The three employees earn a total of about $260,000 annually, Laplante said.

Laplante said state lawmakers should consider legislation that would bar employees who have been indicted or incarcerated from receiving their regular pay.

In Waltham, some residents have expressed outrage over the annual salary the city continues to pay Police Chief Thomas LaCroix during his suspension, which began last summer after he was arrested for allegedly assaulting his wife and a female neighbor in separate incidents in Maynard. LaCroix has pleaded not guilty, and his Concord District Court trial is slated to begin in June.

He has also not been indicted by a grand jury.

The city could conduct its own investigation to determine whether the chief’s conduct violated department rules and warrants a dismissal, instead of waiting for the trial to conclude. Mayor Jeanette McCarthy asked the City Council for funds to begin the investigation, but the request was rejected. Some councilors say the city should have launched the investigation earlier, and now they want to see how it is resolved in court.

LaCroix’s lawyer, Tom Drechsler, has said the police chief deserves to be paid because he is still an employee of the city, and is innocent until proven guilty.

Paul Manganelli, the Waltham police officer arrested last week on federal child pornography charges, continues to earn his base salary of $59,236, because he hasn’t been indicted yet, officials with McCarthy’s office said.

Occasionally, however, communities do move rapidly to cut ties with an employee.

When Newton elementary school teacher David Ettlinger was arrested in January 2012 on charges of child pornography, the school district started termination proceedings within days, and he had resigned by the end of the month.

That type of sensitive allegation against a public school teacher may encourage communities to move more quickly or risk the anger of parents, Berry said.

But Newton was also able to avoid the time-consuming work of having to do its own investigation, and didn’t have to battle the teachers union over the dismissal, said Heather Richards, the school district’s human resources director.

US Department of Homeland Security, which handled much of the initial investigation, shared some information in its complaint with the district, she said.

“Everything happened really quickly, really fast,” Richards said. “This was an outlier.”

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@ globe.com. Follow her on
Twitter @fernandesglobe.

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