Think of it: if you ran a company or municipal agency that was funded by other people’s money, would you do the following: let employees bill you for their own overtime without requiring a manager to sign off — and apparently not require them to even list the hours? Limit how much overtime they were allowed off the job, then routinely let them break the rules — even though their job was to enforce the law? Assume that when a contractor was caught billing you simultaneously for two different jobs it was an innocent bookkeeping error — even if it happened twice, for multiple days? And then continue to hire that person, no questions asked?
It will be months before we know the total amount of money Matthews allegedly stole from taxpayers in his scheme to simultaneously bill the city for police overtime and the school district for security work, in addition to the $9,000 he allegedly took from a safe at police headquarters. We can guess it might be a lot, given that the city detective, who was suspended in January without pay, earned nearly $60,000 as a security officer at the high school in the 2009-10 school year, in addition to his job overseeing the police department’s detective division, plus overtime. The State Comptroller’s Office, which first discovered the fraud while auditing the Kingston City School District, is examining the police department payrolls. The FBI’s separate investigation of URGENT, the narcotics-busting enforcement unit that Matthews co-commanded in 2008, might also bring to light further possible misappropriation of public funds.
But the accounting doesn’t stop there. Almost as disturbing as Matthews’ alleged thievery is the lack of oversight. He seems to have been given an extraordinary level of trust by Sottile, Police Chief Gerald Keller and Gretzinger. He was apparently untouchable: despite a procedure put in place by the Common Council in 2009 requiring the deputy chief of police to pre-approve all overtime requests, Matthews was somehow exempt, as reported in an article last week by Jesse Smith.
Comments in Smith’s article by Barry Rell, president of the Kingston PDA, give a hint of the lackadaisical attitude that apparently infuses the culture at the police department. Rell said that PDA rules restrict policemen working a second job to no more than 20 hours a week, but they aren’t followed. In fact, Rell dismissed the rule, acknowledging “it’s never been an issue.” But the Matthews case shows it certainly has been an issue. Using Rell’s logic, I guess it’s OK for me to run a red light now and then when no cars are coming, because having an accident at those moments “isn’t an issue.” How can people charged with enforcing the law be so loosey-goosey when it comes to following their own rules?
There were a number of red flags, such as the fact that from 2008 to 2010 Matthews, while working as chief of the city’s detective division, was regularly clocking in 50 additional hours a week as a security guard at Kingston High School. At his Feb. 23 press conference, Gretzinger said he was responsible for appointing Matthews head of the school security force and giving him the authority to do all the scheduling for the off-duty police officers’ hours at the school. Since the cops were off duty, didn’t he ever wonder at Matthews’ excessive hours, which far exceeded even a normal 35-hour work week?
More incriminating evidence about Gretzinger’s relationship to Matthews has been provided by Robert Pritchard, former assistant superintendent for business at the school district, who is now superintendent of the Mexico Central School District up in Oswego County. Pritchard told this paper that in 2009 he was called into Gretzinger’s office, after he had discovered that Matthews had billed the district twice for security services at two different places at the same time on two invoices he had submitted. Pritchard deducted the extra hours from Matthews’ pay. But Gretzinger, with Matthews sitting in the room, pressured Pritchard to pay him the extra money. Pritchard said he had refused.
At the press conference, Gretzinger characterized the discrepancies on the invoices as “booking errors,” thereby downplaying the allegation of double dipping. Furthermore, he said he could not recall the meeting with Pritchard and Matthews — a Watergate-style evasion that’s an unacceptable response to the taxpayers who fund his $182,804-plus salary and $45,883 in benefits.
Gretzinger needs to explain why Matthews was in his office. There are other questions. Why, for example, didn’t Gretzinger and Pritchard meet first to discuss the discrepancies, then confront Matthews? And if one believes Gretzinger’s assumption that the discrepancy was an innocent bookkeeping error, wouldn’t Matthews have gone to business manager Pritchard for the money?
“I believe that no … administrator has the right to attempt to damage one’s character based on their own personal bias,” Gretzinger said in response to Pritchard’s account. But Pritchard did not personally attack Gretzinger in his statements to the press; he simply described actions and conversations. In fact, Pritchard is reported as saying that he believed Gretzinger really did think Matthews had worked the hours he had billed the school district for.
The discrepancy needs to be cleared up immediately. If Gretzinger continues to refuse to explain what his role was at the meeting, he should step down. His silence raises the unpleasant specter of an administrative office governed by fear and secrecy.
Meanwhile, Gretzinger and Sottile said they have put in place new procedures, but they haven’t specified what they are. They need to explain what the measures are, how they will be enforced, who will be accountable. They need to bend over backward to win back the trust of the public. We need real reforms, with fresh leadership that takes its job seriously and recognizes the sacrosanct responsibility it has to us, the taxpayers.