Audit: Sheriff’s staff ‘misused’ union leave for political campaigns

Howard_County_Sheriff

Howard County’s auditor is recommending the county clearly delineate the purpose of union leave after a Feb. 24 investigation found employees of the sheriff’s office misused union leave.

The administration is exploring options to recover misused taxpayer funds, wrote Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman in an email.

All collective bargaining agreements with the county’s union grant union leave for union business — but 75 percent fall short of defining what “union business” entails, according to a review of union agreements.

The administration is working “to ensure that all future agreements provide additional clarification regarding the appropriate use of Union leave,” according to the county’s chief administrative officer, Lonnie Robbins.

Sgt. Darrin Granger, who has since been promoted to lieutenant, used 30 hours of leave at a cost of $813 to the county — even though he was not entitled to the leave, according to the county’s audit. A collective bargaining agreement with the union, Lodge 131, excludes sergeants from membership in the lodge, according to the county’s Office of Law.

Four employees of the sheriff’s office used 182 hours in union leave at a cost of $7,823 to provide support to the sheriff’s campaign, according to the auditor’s interviews with Maj. George Voll of the sheriff’s office and union chief Mark Verderaime.

Verderaime declined to comment because he said he did not read the auditor’s investigation. He did not elaborate on acceptable uses of union leave.

Typically, union business involves activities like union meetings, lobbying, contract negotiation and administrative tasks.

“We can even potentially see the term including campaigning for a union election — perhaps — but we don’t see how Lodge business could be extended to performing political campaign activities during public elections,” according to an opinion by the county’s Office of Law.

Fitzgerald — who did not return repeated calls for comment — did not tell the auditor’s office whether he had approved the leave for political campaigning purposes, according to the auditor’s records.

The sheriff’s office plans to reduce Granger’s leave balance, according to the county’s auditor. Granger did not immediately respond for comment.

The union leave was used around the primary and general elections in 2014. The audit does not detail activities conducted during this time period.

Fitzgerald’s opponent and retired police officer John Newnan, said he was disappointed an elected public official used public funds for political purposes — even though Newnan stressed unions have the absolute right to support candidates.

“I don’t believe for a second that utilizing county employees to work on a political campaign is proper,” Newnan said. “It comes at the [dis]advantage of other candidates — whether it’s me or anybody else.”

http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/howard/ellicott-city/ph-ho-cf-sheriff-campaign-leave-0324-20160318-story.html