Monday, November 7, 2011

Yakima Police Spending Tax Money on Booze

Records obtained by the Yakima Herald-Republic show the Yakima police officers suspended for spending more than $400 in tax money on beer for themselves tried to hide their alcohol purchases.

When Yakima City Manager Don Cooper suspended Chad Urwin and Ryan Urlacher in October rather than firing them, he said the officers' actions were likely the result of confusion over the policy rather than intent to violate it.

But a review of police investigative records obtained by the newspaper shows that the officers tried to hide the beer purchases. The records also revealed why firing them could have been difficult, given the obscurity of the city's no-alcohol policy and contradictions in travel, purchasing and reimbursement policies.

According to those records, the officers admitted under questioning that they suspected it was against city policy to buy beer or alcohol with city funds during a two-week firearms instruction course in Spokane last summer.

Rather than confirm the policy, they concocted a scheme to persuade waitresses to write off their bar tabs as tips on their receipts.

A police clerk immediately flagged the receipts, noting the officers paid tips with their dinner on 10 different occasions that sometimes exceeded the entire food bill by 200 percent or more.

For example, on June 20, Urlacher bought a mushroom burger at Hooters for $7.48 with tax, then added a tip of $24.52. Urwin had a cheeseburger for the same price and tacked on a $25 tip.

Ordered to explain themselves, the officers admitted in interviews with Lt. Tom Foley that much of their "tips" were actually used to pay off their nightly bar tab, according to the investigative records. They said they persuaded waitresses to keep separate dinner and bar tabs, then had the waitresses put down their bar tabs as tips. No cash changed hands.

Urlacher, a former Washington State Patrol trooper, told Foley that his past experience as a state employee was that per diems did not have to be itemized, that per diems covered alcohol so long as it was off the clock and that the important point was not to max out his allowance.

Just before leaving for Spokane, Urlacher had confirmed via email with a senior police clerk that he and Urwin each had $61 per diems to work with and that they could spend it any way they wanted. Writing off the bar tab as tips was just a way of avoiding a "riff" with a bookkeeper, he said.

Acting police Chief Greg Copeland wrote "honesty issues" on an internal memo, agreeing with top aides that "only option is termination."

The city's prohibition against paying for alcohol is contained within the policy governing use of city credit cards, but the policy is tucked into the city's voluminous administrative code.

In addition to the obscurity of the city's no-alcohol policy, firing the officers might have been complicated by the question of whether employees were given the policies when they were hired. Nothing in the case file suggested the two officers ever signed off as having received the policy, as required of all city employees who use city-issued credit cards.

Cooper stated he chose to suspend the officers rather than fire them in part to avoid "unnecessary litigation" and because there are policy problems, which he said he plans to tackle once the city's troublesome 2012 budget is put to bed.

Cooper docked the officers the equivalent of a week's pay. He also required them to reimburse the city for the cost of the beer - about $200 each - and they were removed as firearms instructors for the department.

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