City learns costly lesson after PFC hearingFor the city, learning what’s fair was a costly lesson — $37,141.84 to be exact.
By: Shelley Nelson, Superior Telegram
For the city, learning what’s fair was a costly lesson — $37,141.84 to be exact.
That was the cost of a hearing before the city’s Police and Fire Commission to determine if a Superior police officer should be fired after admitting to stealing more than $5,000 from a fund supported by law enforcement officers, including the accused, Officer Kirk Babic.
The cost includes about $35,000 in legal fees for the hearing examiner and attorney who represented the city, an estimated $1,870 in wages for officers called to testify and about $225 for miscellaneous expenses related to the hearing, according to figures provided by the city’s Finance Department. Personnel costs are estimated based on three-hour minimum the city is required to pay officers to testify, according to the city’s internal auditor, Chris Bronson.
“PFC matters can be highly technical,” said City Attorney Frog Prell. He said he, the mayor and command staff of the police department knew there would be hurdles to overcome to convince the Police and Fire Commission to terminate Babic.
That prompted the decision to hire outside counsel with expertise to overcome those hurdles — a cost of about $28,858.
Milwaukee-based Attorney Jim Korom, who represented the city during the hearing in November, had previously represented the city in matters before the Superior Police and Fire Commission, which lead to demoting a police officer in 2002.
Role of the PFC
“It was our only option,” Prell said. “The police chief doesn’t have the authority to terminate, unilaterally, anyone under his supervision. He can always negotiate or finesse a resignation … under the statutes any discipline has to be meted out by the Police and Fire Commission.”
The commission, which is responsible for appointing chiefs to the police and fire departments, also holds the only authority to suspend officers serving under those chiefs, when written charges are filed, according to state law. The only authority the chief has is to bring charges, which retired Police Chief Floyd Peters did in September.
For the commission, termination would have been unprecedented, Commissioner Dean Hecht said. He was one of three commissioners to vote for suspension, a two-year last chance agreement and additional training following two days of testimony in which Babic admitted he took the money.
After all, he said, there had been more egregious cases of misconduct for which the commission never was asked to consider termination.
More often than not, the Police and Fire Commission has not been asked to consider disciplinary matters over which it has jurisdiction in recent years.
Since 2005, six employees of the police and fire departments could have faced charges before the PFC after violating the law; charges were filed only in two cases.
Only Babic faced those charges.
A firefighter accused of stealing $6,500 in union funds when he served as treasurer of International Association of Fire Fighters Union Local 74. Charges were filed with the PFC in 2005, but the firefighter resigned before the commission held a hearing to consider evidence in the case.
Four other cases were handled internally, including the most egregious case of theft against the city.
In 2005, the city’s fire chief was under fire on allegations he falsified mileage reports and received city money to attend a conference that didn’t exist.
While the Police and Fire Commission had jurisdiction to consider termination of former Fire Chief Stephen Gotelaere, charges never were filed with the commission.
The matter was handled internally by then-Mayor Dave Ross. Gotelaere signed a separation agreement that required him to retire and pay the city $10,000 to cover the falsified mileage reports.
It was only after Gotelaere retired city officials discovered additional irregularities in the fire department’s finances.
An investigation by the Wisconsin Department of Justice revealed Gotelaere was involved in a kickback scheme that defrauded the city of nearly $240,000.
While Gotelaere disputed about $13,000 of the state’s allegation, the former chief pleaded guilty in 2007 to three felonies, misconduct in public office and two counts theft. He served time in state prison for the crimes.
The commission’s decision more closely resembled cases the panel never was asked to consider.
Officers accused of being involved in a hit and run accident while driving drunk and another who pleaded guilty to a disorderly conduct charge in Carlton County, Minn., after he was accused of fifth-degree domestic abuse — later dismissed — never faced charges before the Police and Fire Commission.
In those incidents, the officers involved were remorseful and taking responsibility for their actions, Peters testified in November.
Unlike the theft case, which occurred over a period of seven years, Peters said the incidents didn’t involve a pattern of behavior as they did in the Babic case.
“At the end of the day, there are certain behaviors and conducts that disqualify you from the honor — the honor — of having that badge on your chest, of wearing that uniform,” Korom told commissioners in November. “… You can’t have doubts about the honesty and integrity of a law enforcement officer.”
While commissioners found Babic guilty of the charges, the commission split in its decision about how to discipline him.
Hecht, and Commissioners Toby Marcovich and Dennis Dalbec voted for the suspension and last chance agreement.
Commissioners Tom Fennessey and Charlie Glazman voted against the motion. Neither was inclined to comment on their vote.
“I do not feel discussing my vote would aid the department in reintegrating Officer Babic with his current duties,” Glazman said.
All the criteria necessary for the commission to terminate had not been met, Dalbec said.
“Other people had gotten in trouble and essentially were given the same options,” Dalbec said of the discipline handed out by the Police and Fire Commission. “We were essentially doing what other people had gotten.”
Marcovich agreed; he said the commission’s responsibility is to mete out discipline that is “even and consistent.”
“We couldn’t mete out a more severe punishment than others had received,” Marcovich said. “The punishment was consistent.”