Montgomery checks hours of police officers who took classes

By Dan Morse and Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 5, 2010

More than 100 Montgomery County police officers who took controversial, private firearms classes may have done so while being paid by the county, government officials said Thursday.

The officials, who have reviewed 189 flawed timecards related to the classes, are continuing to examine personnel records and expect to dock leave time that some officers have accrued. In at least some instances, they said, the officers probably will be able to give credible explanations that they were not on the clock.

"Right now we don't have violations. We have discrepancies," said Patrick Lacefield, a spokesman for County Executive Isiah Leggett (D).

The weapons classes were set up by a firm with ties to a Montgomery police officer. Fellow officers enrolled in the classes, and their tuition was paid by the county's tuition assistance program. A suit filed by the county Wednesday accused the firm and officer who helped run it of fraud. Officials allege that the classes were designed with a special enticement to get officers to enroll: county-subsidized guns they could take home for personal use. The tuition program is not supposed to cover books or other materials, including guns.

A lawyer representing the firm, Applied Sciences for Public Safety, and the officer who helped run the company, Aaron Bailey, declined to comment Wednesday.

The possibility that officers took the classes on county time is the latest revelation about the troubled tuition assistance program. Montgomery's inspector general, Thomas Dagley, soon is expected to release the findings of his office's investigation into the program.

The future of the program is complicated by disagreements between county officials and the union representing police employees over pay and benefits issues.

On Wednesday, a labor arbitrator ruled in favor of the police union after the two sides failed to agree on a new contract, officials said. Leggett administration officials, facing a $600 million budget shortfall, said that officers should get no raises in the fiscal year starting July 1. They also said that the tuition program, which is covered under the police labor contract, should be suspended.

The police agreed to smaller raises, but still sought increases of 3.5 percent for most employees, plus a continuation of the tuition program, and the arbitrator agreed, according to the county's chief administrative officer, Timothy L. Firestine. If the county gave the police the raises they wanted, other employee unions representing general government workers, teachers and others would seek similar pay bumps, Firestine said. In all, that could cost the county $60 million over two fiscal years, Firestine said. "I don't see how you can justify it," he said. The police union disputes that figure.

Leggett, Firestine and county budget officials are still crafting the budget, which is due mid-month.

The County Council has the final vote on salaries, and council member Phil Andrews (D) said the county cannot afford any raises this year.

County officials have acknowledged that their oversight of the tuition program was lax. But they say the rules were clear.

According to county personnel forms, when employees apply for tuition assistance funds, they must sign a statement affirming that "my course work/training must be taken during my off-duty hours."

Some officers "inappropriately took the class during their normal hours, and we're going to ask them to reimburse the county by using leave," Firestine said. "We can just charge their accounts. They'll probably file a grievance, and then it will all sort of stumble through the grievance process."

Walt Bader, the past president of the county's police union, said that to whatever extent police officers took the courses while filling out timecards showing them working, they might have thought that it was permitted.

Under a different program, officers can qualify for "professional improvement leave" to go to training at, for example, a police academy. The courses at issue provided training, but they were funded by tuition assistance funds -- an indication of just how mismanaged the tuition assistance program was, Bader said.

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