City auditor: Ethics code appears to prohibit police from buying rank

City officials say controversy over police paying for earlier promotions should not impact Vision Tulsa public safety vote.

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The Tulsa Police Department's Riverside Division is one of three uniformed divisions where officers are stationed. An investigation by The Frontier has found some officers throughout the department have paid superiors to retire early so they can be promoted. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier
The Tulsa Police Department’s Riverside Division is one of three uniformed divisions where officers are stationed. An investigation by The Frontier has found some officers throughout the department have paid superiors to retire early so they can be promoted. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

The city’s ethics code appears to prohibit the kind of pay-for-promotions practice that has been commonplace in the Tulsa Police Department for years, but it will be up to Mayor Dewey Bartlett to investigate whether ethics violations have occurred, City Auditor Cathy Criswell told The Frontier Thursday.

“I don’t have the authority to make that call,” Criswell said.

Criswell said her role in this instance is to point out flaws in city policy and that there appears to be some in the Police Department’s promotion policy.

“So I will kick off an investigation to find out what kind of policy changes need to be done,” she said. “I am certain this will not go unaddressed by anybody, at all levels.

“I will contact the mayor and talk to him about making a change to policy to address the weakness.”

An investigation by The Frontier and our media partner, NewsOn6 found that superior officers were paid between $20,000 and $50,000 to retire early by the officer next in line for the job. The practice, which is not sanctioned or overseen by the Police Department, is believed to have occurred for decades and at nearly every rank, according to current and former police officers.

Tulsa Police Sgt. Vic Regalado, the GOP’s candidate for sheriff, told The Frontier in an interview Monday that he had paid a sergeant to retire early in 2013.

Regalado said he saw nothing wrong with the practice, because he was the top-ranked candidate on the city’s promotion list at the time. He declined to say how much he paid or who he paid.

Vic Regalado speaks at a forum for Tulsa County sheriff candidates at Tulsa Community College on Thursday, March 10, 2016. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier
Vic Regalado speaks at a forum for Tulsa County sheriff candidates at Tulsa Community College on Thursday, March 10, 2016. Regalado said he paid a superior officer $20,000 to retire early so Regalado could be promoted to sergeant. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Records show Sgt. Mark Sherwood retired one day before Regalado’s promotion that year.

However had that transaction not occurred before April 2, 2013, Regalado would have had to take the city’s written and oral tests for sergeant again and risk not being ranked among the top scoring officers. Records show Regalado was among four officers who were promoted to the rank of sergeant within a day or two before the promotion list expired, each receiving about $18,000 more in annual salary.

In general, the practice would seem to be addressed in the section of the city’s ethics rules that states city officials may not solicit or receive gifts or favors that may influence their performance of official duties, Criswell said.

“If, say, you are not supposed to receive a gift or monies or so forth that will influence your carrying out your duties, I would say that this (pay-for-promotions) would fall under that because of the way it is influencing these guys from carrying out their duties in that they basically resign, they take the money and resign,” Criswell said.

The Frontier emailed Bartlett’s press secretary, Lloyd Wright, to ask whether the mayor would initiate an investigation into whether ethics code violations were committed.

Bartlett did not respond directly to that question, instead issuing a prepared statement saying he had just learned of the issue Tuesday night and was still working to understand it.

“This will require significant research and conversations with not only our Legal Department, but the Human Resources Department, Tulsa Police Department and Tulsa Fraternal Order of Police,” Bartlett’s email states. “I have reached out to the city attorney and the district attorney to gather more information and will evaluate the appropriate next steps until we have arrived at a resolution as soon as possible.

“Right now there is just not enough information to respond to specific questions related to the subject.”

Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler issued a statement to The Frontier Thursday stating that the issue “should be directed towards the city of Tulsa’s legal division.”

“The Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office represents the County and its elected officials.  We do not provide opinions on private civil legal issues.  We are a prosecution office.  As such, we do not investigate cases.  We review cases for criminal prosecution as they are provided to us in reports from area law enforcement agencies,” Kunzweiler said.

Police Chief Chuck Jordan said TPD “has met its obligation twice to determine if anything is wrong with it.” Jordan was referring to prior assurances by someone in the city attorney’s office that officers who paid superiors to retire early weren’t violating any law or policy.

However the city attorney’s office said they could find no record of that and Jordan said he no longer had a copy.

Police Chief Chuck Jordan speaks at the police training academy last month. The draft version of an independent study of city's police manpower found that the department could use approximately 200 more officers. DYLAN GOFORTH
Police Chief Chuck Jordan speaks at the police training academy last month. The draft version of an independent study of city’s police manpower found that the department could use approximately 200 more officers.
DYLAN GOFORTH

Former Police Chief Ron Palmer, who twice served in that role, said he was told by someone in the city’s human resources department that buying rank was not against law or policy. Palmer said he disagreed with the practice however, and said it was “literally buying your rank.”

Jordan said Thursday he is “looking at some remedies, some very good remedies, but that requires negotiations with the union.”

While Jordan did not elaborate on possible remedies, the Tulsa Fire Department’s approach to promotions may provide a possible solution. The department has a promotion list that does not expire and the issue of buying rank has not been a problem at TFD, said Chief Ray Driskell.

Tulsa Fire Department Chief Ray Driskell. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier
Tulsa Fire Department Chief Ray Driskell. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

“It’s very difficult to promote within the Tulsa Fire Department. They will study for about a year. … You don’t want to do that and get on a list that could die. Because we have a standing list we don’t have that issue.

“We are very happy with our promotional system and how it works.”

A citizens group behind the ouster of former Sheriff Stanley Glanz and the Tulsa County Democratic Party have called for thorough investigations of the practice of buying rank.

Members of We The People Oklahoma held a press conference Thursday to address the issue.

“It is brought to our attention due to excellent reporting from the Frontier, NewsOn6,” said Marq Lewis, the group’s founder.

“One of the things that former Sheriff Glanz stated is that he was able to give political patronage jobs to other people. We also understand how Bob Bates paid to play. … We are very concerned because TPD has had this policy going on for decades.”

FOP: Buying rank won’t impact Vision Tulsa

In a related development, the local Fraternal Order of Police president and a city councilor said Thursday that the pay-for-promotion practice should not keep Tulsans from approving a proposed sales tax to hire 160 additional officers.

The $884.6 million Vision Tulsa sales tax proposal includes a permanent tax that would provide $272 million over 15 years to hire 160 additional police officers and 65 firefighters.

The proposal is in part a response to a University of Cincinnati study that found that the Police Department is understaffed by at least 175 officers.

FOP President Clay Ballenger said the practice of buying promotions does not affect those numbers.

Ballenger, Clay
Tulsa Fraternal Order of Police President Clay Ballenger. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

“It absolutely has nothing to do with anything like that. It is just the normal people that retire,” he said. “When we project for attrition we look at the long-term average, so even if you assume this has been going on for years, that is already figured into the equation.”

He added: “Let’s say we are talking about one person a year or something (who retires early). Our attrition rate is 36 to 40 a year, depending on the year. This is not a manpower issue.”

Ballenger, an 18-year veteran of the police force, reiterated that he has no first-hand knowledge of an officer paying another officer to retire early and said he believes the practice is not as prevalent as people think.

The fact that it occurs does not mean officers are not concerned about the department’s manpower levels, Ballenger said.

“I definitely would not make that leap to say police officers don’t care about manning levels because they are willing to let one person retire early,” Ballenger said.

The pay-for-promotion practice usually involves officers who are a month or two from retirement, not years away, Ballenger said.

“It’s not why people make the decision to retire,” he said.

City Councilor and mayoral candidate G.T. Bynum said Thursday that he did not know a lot about the pay-for-promotion practice but added that “it certainly doesn’t smell right.”

The City Council owes it to the citizens of Tulsa and the Police Department to learn more about the issue and determine the proper policy, Bynum said.

The practice should not preclude Tulsans from supporting the permanent public safety tax, Bynum said.

“The public safety proposal before voters as part of the Vision renewal initiative is not based on a Tulsa Police Department request. It is based on an independent, third-party recommendation made by one of the most respected criminologists in the United States,” Bynum said.

“It is also strictly limited to funding patrol officers, not management. The retirement issue relates to management. It is a separate issue from how many patrol officers we need.

“There are positives and negatives to any proposal, but I don’t think this particular issue impacts consideration of the Vision public safety proposal.”

The Police Department did not request the study but has long advocated for more police officers.

The manpower study conducted calls for increasing the number of patrol officers from 343 to 459, or by 116.

Ballenger said Thursday that up to 100 of the 160 new officers paid for with the the permanent public safety tax would be patrol officers. The other officers would likely be detectives, school resource officers, motorcycle and traffic officers and other positions.

Ultimately, the police chief will determine where the new officers are assigned, Ballenger said.

The Vision Tulsa campaign did not respond directly to whether it believed the pay-for-promotions practice should affect how Tulsans feel about the proposed public safety tax.

The campaign, like Bynum, noted that an independent party had identified the need for more police officers. According to the the campaign, adding 160 officers is a key first step in providing proactive, community policing that would best serve Tulsans.

“The campaign is focused on educating voters about how passing Vision Tulsa would help meet this need as well as the additional components of the overall Vision Tulsa package, which is a balanced plan that will benefit all of Tulsa,” the Vision Tulsa campaign statement reads.

The Vision Tulsa package that goes to voters April 5 would extend 0.55 percent of the existing 0.60 percent Vision sales tax. In addition to providing $272 million for public safety, the package includes $102 million for transit and $510.6 million for economic development.

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