The practice of “buying rank” within the Tulsa Police Department violates numerous sections of the city’s ethics code, the city charter, city personnel policies and internal Police Department policies, an investigation by the city of Tulsa has found.
The city’s investigation, prompted by an investigation by The Frontier and our media partner, NewsOn6, concluded: “Violating the (ethics) code is ‘grounds for disciplinary action up to and including dismissal or removal from office as may be provided by law.’”
However, the report by the city’s compensation and policy administration manager, Ken Factor, states the city cannot punish officers involved in the practice unless an ethics complaint is filed against a specific officer.
But Factor said the practice must stop.
“The violations described in this report do not support a preservation of public trust and does not support the perception of integrity with all aspects of the promotional system within the Tulsa Police Department,” Factor wrote.
An Investigation in March by The Frontier and NewsOn6 found that 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. Some TPD officers and city employees call the practice “buying rank.”
Payments to superior officers who agree to retire early reportedly range from $20,000 to as high as $50,000. The practice — not sanctioned or overseen by the department — is believed to have occurred at nearly every rank.
The only person to acknowledge buying rank is Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado, who told The Frontier in March that he paid for a promotion while serving on the police force. Regalado is not subject to any disciplinary action because he is no longer on the Police Department, the memo states.
Asked for comment on the city’s findings Thursday, a spokeswoman for Regalado said in an email: “The Sheriff is tied up the rest of the day. He says he has no comment on the city’s practices because he no longer works there.”
In a written statement, Regalado said: “I have addressed these allegations in the past. I maintain that I did nothing illegal or immoral.”
Since The Frontier/NewsOn6 investigation in March, Mayor Dewey Bartlett issued an executive order to stop the practice and the FOP filed a grievance against Bartlett’s order. The FOP’s attorney has also threatened to sue Bartlett personally if he tries to fire, demote or discipline an officer based on the order, records show.
Last week, the chairman of the city’s Civil Service Commission, Walter Haskins, said Factor’s report made his “blood boil.” Haskins questioned whether the Police Department is doing its own investigation into whether any officers still working in the department have participated in buying rank.
“If Internal Affairs does not get to the bottom of that, I would ask that Human Resources advise us of that and maybe we can ask Human Resources, then, to get to the bottom of that,” Haskins said during Thursday’s commission meeting. “Because if that pay-to-play operation has been going on over there with current members of the Police Department, I think it is something deserving of perhaps and action, certainly public knowledge.”
Haskins said he was surprised at the FOP’s resistance to the mayor’s action.
“I wanted to raise the issue because it was frankly astounding to me when, apparently … the FOP takes the position that there is nothing wrong with that.”
The FOP’s previous president, Clay Ballenger, denied any direct knowledge of the pay-for-promotion practice when it was first reported. Current FOP president, Patrick Stephens, declined to comment Thursday on the city’s internal report. In an interview in June, Stephens told The Frontier he could not confirm or deny whether the pay-for-promotion practice ever took place in the Police Department.
“What I am saying is that no random person can be promoted,” Stephens said then.
The six-page internal report was prompted by ethics complaints filed by the Tulsa County Democratic Party and a citizens group, We The People Oklahoma, claiming that the pay-for-promotion practice violated the city’s ethics code.
Factor found that the practice violates several sections of the ethics code. Those include using public positions for personal gain or in a way that would give the appearance of impropriety; participating in city business in which officers have a related personal financial or organizational interest, or conflict of interest; and not revealing the pay-for-promotion payments to supervisors.
The city charter violation cited by Factor pertains to an article that stipulates that “appointments and promotions in classified service of the city shall be made solely on the basis of merit and fitness, determined by competitive procedures.”
Factor goes on to note that “solely” means “without anything or anyone else involved.”
“If a superior officer retires because she/he is paid to do so by a subordinate then the meaning of ‘solely’ is not met and the charter is violated,” Factor wrote.
The pay-for-promotion policy violates the city’s personnel policies and procedures because officers involved don’t reveal the financial arrangement, Factor’s report states.
Police internal policies, meanwhile, require officers to know, obey and enforce city ordinances as to conducting themselves in an ethical manner.
“Clearly, by participating in the practice of exchanging money as an inducement for a superior officer to retire so that a superior could promote to a higher rank at a higher pay, both officers are violating the code (of ethics) and are therefore also violating Rule 8 of the police Rules and Regulations,” Factor’s report states.
It is not clear whether the city could take action against a retired or former police officer who was found to have participated in the pay-for-promotion practice. But the report makes clear that such action could be taken against current members of the police force.
The practice is controversial and at least two police chiefs raised questions about it.
Former Tulsa Police Chief Ron Palmer has said previously that he is troubled by the practice of buying rank, which he said 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.
Police Chief Chuck Jordan could not be reached for comment Thursday. In a previous interview with The Frontier, Jordan said he was aware of the practice and once asked 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.
Bartlett’s executive order, issued June 6, was intended to end the pay-for-promotion practice. The order states that before any classified employee – which includes police officers – accepts a promotion, he must sign an affidavit saying that he has neither given nor received compensation or made any other arrangements outside city procedures to get the promotion.
The executive order and a new police promotion policy presented to the Civil Service Commission last week have been strongly opposed by the FOP and its attorney, James Moore.
In a letter to the mayor two days after the executive order, Stephens said police promotion policies are subject to the collective bargaining process and cannot be made unilaterally by the mayor.
“To refresh you on those policies, they are designed to be as objective and fair as possible in order to identify the most qualified candidate for promotion,” Stephens wrote. “The process is lengthy and candidates must put forth significant effort to compete for promotion. At the end of the process candidates are ranked in order of the scores they accumulate during the process.”
Moore sent a letter directly to Bartlett on June 9 threatening a personal lawsuit against the mayor if he did not follow the city Charter.
“We find the order an illegal attempt to exercise power that is not granted to the mayor by the Tulsa City Charter and Personnel Policies,” Moore wrote. “If you do discipline, fire or demote employees based on your order, you may face a personal lawsuit for acting outside your lawful Charter authority.”
Moore noted that in 2012 the FOP negotiated with the city to make comprehensive changes to the Police Department’s promotion policies, changes that were adopted by the Civil Service Commission and the City Council.
“You are now trying to force new conditions on hiring, promotions and discipline through your order even though that is contrary to the rules that were properly established,” he wrote.
Tulsa County Democratic Party Vice-Chairman Greg Bledsoe, however, said the FOP’s opposition to Bartlett’s order is curious, considering the union did not acknowledge the extent of the practice.
Marq Lewis, co-founder of We The People Oklahoma, said he was glad the city of Tulsa investigated his complaint. (The group was also behind a grand jury petition drive that ended with the ouster of former Sheriff Stanley Glanz.)
“I am encouraged to know that the city of Tulsa has taken the steps to stop this,” Lewis said. “That gives people security to let people know something is wrong, we are going to handle it from the city perspective.”
However the issue shouldn’t end there, he said.
“The city of Tulsa needs to hire an investigator to audit TPD for this issue. I have zero confidence to know that the Tulsa Police Department will investigate themselves.”
The Civil Service Commission on Thursday tabled the city’s proposal to change the Police Department’s promotion policy to determine whether the proposal would violate the city’s collective bargaining agreement with the police.
City officials have argued that the executive order does not violate the collective bargaining agreement because the issue pertains to ethics and that the mayor has the right to change personnel policies for the city.
City Human Resources Director Erica Felix-Warwick told the commission that the mayor’s executive order – which applies to all classified employees, not just police officers – had become somewhat burdensome. She said employees are required to sign an affidavit every time they change positions stating that they received no inducements to change jobs.
“He (the mayor) thinks the real issue is within the Police Department, so let’s address the policy, fix it from that level and then we can get rid of the executive order,” Felix-Warwick said.