“It sounds like you’re buying your rank and literally you are," said former Tulsa Police Chief Ron Palmer
For several decades, some Tulsa police officers have paid superiors thousands of dollars to retire early so the officer can fill their jobs before the department’s annual promotion list expires, an investigation by The Frontier and NewsOn6 has found.
Officers must complete a written and verbal test to compete for higher ranks and their names are placed on a promotion list in the order of how they scored on those tests. Those lists expire after one year and officers who have not been promoted must take the tests again to compete for future vacancies, known as “dying on the list.”
Payments to superior officers who agree to retire early reportedly range from $20,000 to as high as $50,000, and the practice — not sanctioned or overseen by the department — is believed to have occurred at nearly every rank.
Those who have made such payments to superiors include Tulsa Police Sgt. Vic Regalado, the Republican candidate for Tulsa County Sheriff, The Frontier and NewsOn6 confirmed.
Regalado told The Frontier and NewsOn6 “there’s absolutely nothing wrong” with paying a superior to retire early.
The practice is controversial and at least two police chiefs raised questions about it.
Tulsa Police Chief Chuck Jordan said he is aware of the practice and once asked the city attorney’s office whether it was legal. Jordan said he was told there was no law against officers paying superiors to retire early and that it did not violate department or city policy.
The current city attorney was unaware of the practice until informed recently by The Frontier and his office could find no record of any legal opinion on the matter.
Former Tulsa Police Chief Ron Palmer said he is troubled by the practice of buying rank, which was “happening all the way up to the rank of major” when he was chief. Palmer was Tulsa’s chief from 1992-2002 and returned to the job in 2007 for three years.
While Tulsa police officers aren’t state employees, Oklahoma Ethics Commission rules appear to prohibit such payments if they were. Additionally, the city of Tulsa’s ethics rules say city officials cannot solicit gifts “or other favors” in return for performing their official duties and that they must disclose benefits received “as a result of an item before the individual … as a city official.”
Though there are state and federal laws that may apply to the practice of buying rank, it would be up to state or federal authorities to undertake such a review.
In some cases, only a few points or fractions of a point separate the top candidates for promotion and a new test could change the outcome. While it’s impossible to say how widespread the practice is, records show three sergeants retired one or two days before the promotion list expired between 2012 and 2014. Four officers were promoted the next day.
Records show Regalado was promoted to sergeant on March 31, 2013, one day before the list of officers and corporals eligible for promotion to that rank was set to expire. The only sergeant to retire that year was Mark Sherwood, a 24-year veteran who retired the day before Regalado’s promotion, records show.
Regalado and Sherwood served together for a time on the Tulsa Police Department’s SWAT unit.
Palmer said after hearing about officers buying ranks during his first term as chief, he asked the city’s human resources department to review the matter. He was told nothing prevented officers from paying superiors to retire.
“It sounds like you’re buying your rank and literally you are. …. I never thought it was right but there was no state law that was prohibitive of it.”
Regalado: ‘Kind of a private deal’
When asked about the practice by The Frontier, Regalado agreed he had paid a superior officer to retire.
“There was an individual who was less than a month from retiring,” he said.
Regalado said the amounts paid in such cases are based on what the superior officer is losing financially by retiring early. Asked how much he paid, and whether that sergeant was Sherwood, Regalado said: “That’s kind of a private deal.”
Because Regalado was able to skip from officer to sergeant with the promotion, he received an annual pay increase of more than $18,000, according to TPD’s salary scale.
Regalado, who has promised transparency if elected sheriff, talked with The Frontier about the matter but declined to talk on camera.
— Vic Regalado (@Vic4Sheriff) January 23, 2016
Contacted by The Frontier, a man who answered Sherwood’s cell phone and identified himself as Mark, hung up the phone after being asked if Regalado paid him to retire early. He did not respond to a voice mail requesting comment for this story.
Since leaving the department, Sherwood has founded a company that sells nutritional supplements and fitness DVDs, according to his website.
Regalado was ranked third on the list of officers who tested for the rank of sergeant in 2012. Because the first two people on the list were promoted before him, Regalado was at the top of the remaining list in March 2013, with the list was set to expire on April 1.
He noted that the practice of paying a superior officer to retire early does not change the fact that the top-ranked officer on the list at the time is still promoted.
“It’s been a practice that has been around for years. It’s an open practice. … There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. I was No. 1 on the list,” Regalado said.
Democratic candidate for Tulsa County Sheriff Rex Berry said he did not pay for his promotion from officer to corporal in 1981. He said when he joined the department in 1973, he learned that the practice of “paying the guy in front of you to retire” existed in the 1960s.
“I don’t know anybody who paid for a rank. … Personally, I really don’t like it because the old crowd get to control who gets promoted. It’s ripe for corruption.”
The April 5 election is to fill the remainder of former Sheriff Stanley Glanz’s term in office.
Favoritism and “pay to play” policing has been at the heart of the controversy over the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office. Glanz resigned following a scandal regarding favoritism shown to a wealthy reserve deputy, Robert Bates, who shot an unarmed man during a gun sting April 1.
‘I’ll give you the slot’
Had the test for sergeant been given again, there’s no guarantee that Regalado or any other officer would score the same. The verbal test is conducted by a panel of outside law enforcement officers. The panel members and questions change, as do the questions on the written test.
Sources inside the department who agreed to discuss the practice — which some call buying stripes — said it is fairly widespread and well known, though some believe it is wrong and question whether it’s legal. They also question whether recipients are reporting the payments to the IRS.
Few people in the department would speak on the record about the practice.
Major Tracie Lewis said she is aware that some officers have paid superiors to retire early, adding that she has not done so. She said she understands the reason why an officer at or near the top of the list would not want to go through the arduous testing process again.
“I might consider doing it if I knew it was legal but I wouldn’t pay thousands of dollars,” Lewis said.
She said while it’s usually no secret who is being paid to retire early, “what’s usually kept secret is the amount.”
Lewis said she believes the practice of buying rank has made the police department “top heavy.”
“We are supervisor top heavy because per the contract you have to fill vacant spots. Now you’re filling them sooner.”
Officer Jeff Cash, a 35-year TPD veteran, said the department’s testing process has changed through the years and improved the pool of applicants for higher ranks. Having a list that expires and annual tests “elevates the quality of the candidate because he’s got to stay in test shape,” Cash said.
Officers test for the rank of corporal in October and sergeant in April. Tests for higher rank — captain, major and deputy chief — are given only when a vacancy occurs. Candidates on those lists also remain for one year after the vacancy.
“Come April 1st, people who are eligible to be promoted, like they’re the next up, are like, ‘Man, there’s no slots,’” said Cash, who has served as a labor negotiator for the FOP.
“What they do is a guy says … ‘Hey if you give a month’s salary that I’m going to lose by retiring, I’ll give you the slot.’”
“There’s nothing kind of morally wrong about that. … Who’s the victim? Two people get together and make a financial arrangement.”
FOP: Process is fair
The state Ethics Commission’s rules on conflicts of interest do not apply to officers of political subdivisions such as the city of Tulsa. However the rules appear to prohibit state officials from doing what some Tulsa police officers have reportedly long considered standard practice.
The rule on “misuse of authority” states that a state employee “shall not use or permit the use of his or her office … in a manner that is intended to coerce or induce another person, including a subordinate, to provide any benefit, financial or otherwise, to himself or herself.”
Another rule on “gifts to superiors by state officers” states that a state employee “may not directly or indirectly give a gift or make a donation toward a gift for an official superior in an agency’s chain of command … nor may any state officer or employee receive directly or indirectly a gift from an employee receiving less compensation from the state than himself or herself.”
That rule has an exception allowing employees to make or receive gifts “appropriate to the occasion” to recognize other employees’ birthdays, marriages or retirements.
The city of Tulsa’s ethics ordinance, which does apply to city employees, states that city officials may not solicit or receive gifts or favors that may influence their performance of official duties.
Jordan said he became aware of the practice after becoming police chief in 2010 and asked the city attorney’s office for a legal opinion.
“I was told it was not illegal and did not violate policy,” he said, declining to comment further.
City Attorney David O’Meilia, in an email to The Frontier Monday, said: “We have conducted a search of the formal legal opinions of the City Attorney and there is no formal legal opinion on the subject. We will continue to search for any informal opinion or advice that may have been provided to TPD on the subject.”
Former City Attorney Deirdre Dexter said she does not recall the issue ever coming up or her office giving an opinion on it.
“I think I’d remember that,” said Dexter, who left the city attorney’s office in late 2010, about one month after Jordan became interim police chief.
The current contract between the city and the Fraternal Order of Police does not address buying rank. The contract allows officers to donate time worked during a pay period to a colleague of the same rank but prohibits officers from paying each other to do so.
Tulsa FOP President Clay Ballenger said the union is not involved in the practice of officers paying superiors to retire early.
“We negotiate the city policy which oversees promotions. Our thing is to make sure the promotions are done fairly and equitably … and that everyone on the list is promoted in rank order.”
Ballenger said he is generally aware that it goes on but has no first-hand knowledge. He said he was once ranked No. 1 on the list when it expired and had to take the test again.
“I’ve always heard that has happened. I got promoted and I wasn’t involved in anything like that.”
Ballenger said the purpose of the list expiring is to ensure the department gets the best and largest pool of applicants for promotions.
“The reason we went to the annual test is so that new people are able to take the test every year… You are hoping to get the best of the best.”
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