WALLA WALLA — Walla Walla County commissioners are considering a policy to track paid leave for managers following a state investigation last year into a suspected loss of public funds at the Sheriff’s Office.
The Washington State Auditor’s Office investigation ultimately concluded there was no wrongdoing because the county has no policy governing when administrative employees use vacation hours, leaving Sheriff John Turner with sole “discretion” over the matter for his department.
Turner's responses in full
A document containing the full text of Walla Walla County Sheriff John Turner's responses to U-B questions regarding the state Auditor's Office investigation can be found here.
Investigators, however, did raise concerns that the Sheriff’s Office was not tracking hours administrative employees were at work.
“... (I)f they are not tracking time, how does anyone know how much extra time they are entitled to take off …?” an auditor stated in investigation notes obtained by the Union-Bulletin.
County commissioners held a July 15 work session to discuss developing guidelines to address the matter.
“It is important that we have a tracking mechanism,” Commissioner Perry Dozier said following the work session. “We need open communications with other elected officials, too, so everybody is on the same page.”
The Auditor’s Investigation
According to commissioners Greg Tompkins and Dozier, a “concerned constituent” raised the concerns about Sheriff’s Office administrators not using vacation time during absences from work.
As required by state law, commissioners reported the concerns to the Auditor’s Office, which began an investigation in July 2012.
The office issued a final letter Dec. 18 stating the employees who were under investigation are “exempt” under the Fair Labor Standards Act, meaning they have no set schedule for when they are required to work.
“We found the County’s policy does not describe when exempt employees should use vacation time when they are not at work,” wrote Sarah Walker, fraud manager for the Auditor’s Office. “Based on the exclusion from the Fair Labor Standards Act and County’s policy not addressing exempt employees’ use of vacation, the Sheriff has the discretion and the responsibility to oversee the work of these employees.”
In a phone interview in June, Walker told the Union-Bulletin the Auditor’s Office investigation was limited to an examination of three command staff member’s security key data, computer records and payroll sheets for the month of June 2012.
In spite of the limited scope of the investigation, Zac Wilson, an investigator with the Auditor’s Office, raised concerns about how the Sheriff’s Office tracks hours for exempt employees.
In investigation notes from August 2012 Walker wrote:
“(Sheriff John Turner) did point out to Zac that the employees in question are exempt employees, so they are not required to keep track of time; Zac is going to be asking for a clarification, since if they are not tracking time, how does anyone know how much extra time they are entitled to take off for the extra hours worked?”
The U-B Investigation
In April the Union-Bulletin requested records that included work documents related to the Auditor’s Office investigation. The documents released include key card data, computer access data and payroll sheets for January through July of 2012.
Records of the security key use and computer use for the three command employees show similar patterns of use, with one exception: the data for Undersheriff Edward Freyer show no activity for several weeks-long periods during those seven months.
The periods include two weeks during the end of February and beginning of March, two weeks in June and nearly the entire month of July. Freyer, who annually accrues 96 hours of vacation a year, claimed 24 hours during that period.
In response to the Union-Bulletin’s records request, Turner wrote a guest column in May that the newspaper published in its opinion pages, weeks before the requested documents were released to the newspaper.
The column referenced the Auditor’s Office final letter, and spoke highly of Freyer’s work for the county.
“Per our county’s policy manual, an FLSA exempt employee ‘is compensated in relationship to the overall level of expected job performance over a period of time, and not according to the number of hours that are worked,’” Turner wrote.
He added that “the vast majority of the time it averages out to be far greater than 40 hours per week without any additional compensation.”
Turner also responded to U-B questions with a hand-delivered packet of information including policy manuals, a letter asking for complete disclosure of his written response and several letters of praise for Freyer by other area law enforcement officials.
“Just because our building’s key card or computer system shows no access, that in no way means that the Undersheriff was not working,” Turner wrote. “Eddie, due to his tenure, is more ‘old school’ in nature; he prefers reading paper over a computer screen, and telephone and face to face conversations over e-mail.”
However, Tom Cooper and Sgt. Brad Ansorge of the Sheriff’s Office confirmed the key card and computer data correspond with their observations that Freyer would take regular, weeks-long absences to work as a security contractor or consultant, sometimes overseas.
“(Freyer) was gone two weeks after he was there a month,” Ansorge said.
Cooper and Ansorge both said Freyer has spoken openly in the office about working overseas.
Additional sources within the Sheriff’s Office, who would not go on record for this story, confirmed that Freyer talked openly about his work outside the department.
Ansorge has been a Sheriff’s Office deputy for 25 years. Cooper is a 24-year veteran, but was removed from the duty roster in April following a knee injury that had placed him on “light duty” status since December 2012.
Cooper has also announced he plans to run for sheriff in the 2014 election.
Turner hired Freyer, a retired FBI agent, as his undersheriff after Turner won the 2010 election. As of July 2012 Freyer’s salary was $6,507 a month.
Freyer and Turner met in Iraq in 2008 while employed by the Department of Defense as law enforcement professionals in counterterrorism activities.
Freyer has refused to comment to the U-B for this report.
“I have nothing to say to you,” Freyer said over the phone in late June. “If I thought you were going to give anyone a fair shake at the Sheriff’s Office, I would talk to you. But I’m not going to do that.”
Turner acknowledged in his May column in the U-B that he knew there had been some discontent within the Sheriff’s Office about command staff work schedules.
“I knew there have been grumblings and misconceptions about how differently I run my command staff in order to accomplish our mission versus previous administrations,” Turner wrote.
Cooper, a vocal critic of Turner since the 2010 election, noted that under previous Sheriff Mike Humphreys, hour tracking applied to everyone in the department.
Humphreys, in a brief phone interview, confirmed that exempt as well as non-exempt staff tracked their hours the same way. He also said his employees were allowed to work outside the Sheriff’s Office when they were off duty, with the understanding that it would not interfere with their regular work schedule.
Ansorge said, “It’s quite apparent (Turner) eliminated the checks and balances for his command staff.”
In Turner’s response to U-B questions about Freyer working outside the Sheriff’s Office, he wrote that “off-duty work has never interfered with any Sheriff’s Office employee’s official capacities, nor has it negatively impacted work product or service to our county.”
Turner, in a phone converstation with the U-B earlier this year, said he also spoke with Mitch Barker, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, in response to concerns about command staff schedules. He said Barker confirmed to him the Walla Walla Sheriff’s Office operates according to “best practices.”
In a phone interview with the U-B, Barker confirmed he spoke with Turner about flexibility in command staff schedules in general, but said Turner did not ask about allowing an employee to be absent for weeks at a time while still drawing a full paycheck.
Walla Walla County Commissioner Jim Johnson confirmed the board’s policy discussions were prompted by the Auditor’s Office investigation and reports that Sheriff’s Office administrators were not reporting extended absences as vacation time.
“I think that whole situation brought (the policy issue) to the forefront,” he said.
Tompkins, prior to the commissioners’ June 15 work session, said, “We need to look at all our policies now.”
During the work session Lucy Schwallie, county personnel and risk manager, told commissioners she compared Walla Walla County with 12 other Washington counties regarding policies covering exempt-employee use of paid leave.
She said four of the counties that responded had no policy, similar to Walla Walla County. The other eight counties had policies that included different types of requirements for reporting leave time, and would necessarily have some mechanism for tracking employee hours.
Schwallie also said some counties have provisions for rewarding an exempt employee who works an excessive amount above a standard work week, while others include provisions for docking the salary of exempt employees who take too much leave.
“This is a tricky area,” Schwallie said. “Any change in policy will have to be run by the attorneys.”
Following the work session, Johnson said the county will likely try to craft a policy that clarifies the use of leave time by exempt employees.
“We’ll try to come up with a policy that’s a little more clearly laid out,” he said. “I think it would be good to have that codified a little bit.”
Luke Hegdal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8326.
Fellow law enforcers laud Freyer's work in county
Walla Walla County Sheriff John Turner, responding to Union-Bulletin questions about Undersheriff Edward Freyer’s work schedule, has said repeatedly that Freyer is a valuable, hard-working member of the Sheriff’s Office.
Freyer’s work schedule came under scrutiny following an investigation by the Washington State Auditor’s Office into suspected loss of funds due to concerns whether management level employees were not reporting extended absences as vacation time.
In a follow up investigation by the U-B, staff members at the Sheriff’s Office reported that the Freyer is gone from the Sheriff’s Office while he works as a security consultant or contractor, sometimes for weeks at a time.
Turner responded to the Union-Bulletin questions with a packet of information that included high praise for Freyer.
“Many examples of Eddie’s work ethic come to mind,” Turner wrote. “His professional manner of fulfilling his Undersheriff duties, his efforts to keep our Balloon Stampede and County Fair free of crime and tragedy, his work with SAR, SWAT, CART ....”
Turner acknowledged that Freyer has a flexible schedule, but stated, “... (Forty) hours per week or 2,080 possible regular work hours per year are only a benchmark ... I know that Undersheriff Freyer has worked many hundreds of hours over 2,080 hours each year.”
Turner also solicited letters from other area law enforcement officials, including a letter from Walla Walla Police Chief Scott Bieber.
Bieber agreed to an interview with the U-B at his office June 24. He said he could speak only to the cooperative work Freyer had done with the Walla Walla Police Department, and not Freyer’s schedule at the Sheriff’s Office specifically.
“There’s a considerable amount of work Eddie does for us,” Bieber said. “The work’s getting done, and it’s valuable work to the community.”
Freyer leads both SWAT and Search and Rescue and has worked long hours for both, Bieber said. Bieber also mentioned Freyer’s work with the Child Abduction and Response Team.
“When we need him, in the 15 months I’ve been here, he’s been available,” Bieber said.