Several Des Plaines police officers are facing suspensions for violating department rules and policies related to "irregularities" with the reporting of hours worked on federally funded traffic safety campaigns, Police Chief William Kushner said Tuesday.
The Illinois Department of Transportation last spring suspended the federal grant awarded to Des Plaines for traffic safety campaigns due to the city's possible overreporting of DUI arrest numbers, according to documents.
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IDOT acted after the city notified it of potential problems. The city also began to conduct its own internal audit of traffic enforcement records to determine whether the numbers reported to the state were accurate. It retained an outside law firm to help with the records audit, but the investigation didn't kick into high gear until after Kushner was hired in August.
The city looked into all DUI arrests between 2009 and 2012, reviewed all seat-belt violations since 2008, and looked into overtime pay for all the employees who worked on traffic safety campaigns funded by the grant.
After the nearly six-month investigation, Kushner determined suspensions for the officers involved best fit the violations. There will be no demotions, he said.
"I think it will send a resounding message to all the officers that this type of conduct will not be tolerated," Kushner said. "The one commander that was involved retired. He is the target of a federal investigation. Everybody else is below the rank of sergeant. Right now, we're trying to work through the mechanics of this. I would like to get (suspensions) started as soon as possible so that the whole department can put this behind us and move forward."
He declined to name the officers involved or specify how many there were.
The officers have 30 days from the time of the discipline being imposed to appeal through the police union. They may request arbitration, or a hearing in front of the police and fire commission, or agree through their attorneys to take the suspension time without contest, Kushner said.
Des Plaines city officials alerted IDOT about the accounting problem in spring 2012, according to documents obtained by the Daily Herald through the Freedom of Information Act. In a March email with IDOT, then-Des Plaines City Attorney Dave Wiltse acknowledged the city's grant coordinator may have overreported DUI arrests, and as a result, the city removed its grant coordinator from those duties and assigned someone new, documents show.
The problem was first reported by an officer to senior management within the police department.
Records show Cmdr. Tim Veit oversaw the traffic safety grant program and signed off on the paperwork submitted to IDOT, which includes a form documenting arrests, citations and hours worked by employees.
Veit -- who retired in April 2012 after 31 years with the department -- was paid $25,603 in overtime in 2011, $11,530 in overtime in 2010 and $3,042 in overtime in 2009, according to documents. Those amounts are for overtime for all reasons; it's not clear how much was funded by the grant. Veit doesn't have a listed phone number and couldn't be reached for comment.
Kushner said suspension times for the officers may vary and likely will be staggered so the department does not have to pay a lot of overtime. He added further discipline is unlikely.
"I'm confident that this is it," he said. "I've gone through some other grant files. I've not been able to find anything where I can prove that there were any improprieties. Before we apply for any more grants we are going to make sure we have clear, well-defined controls in place to prevent a recurrence."
Kushner said the results of Des Plaines' internal affairs investigation into its officers' conduct will not be made public; however, the city has cooperated with IDOT's request for information about the financial audit of the grant program.
IDOT spokesman Mike Claffey said he could not comment on Des Plaines' audit, but he said the agency takes the integrity of its traffic safety grant programs seriously.
"We cooperate closely and routinely with NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) to ensure that these grants are used properly and effectively to help us attain our goals, which include saving lives, eliminating impaired driving from our roads, and making sure drivers buckle up every time and are focused 100 percent on the road when they are behind the wheel," he said.
A federal investigation into Des Plaines' administering of the federally funded Sustained Traffic Enforcement Program is being conducted by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Inspector General's Office. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office would not confirm whether that agency is investigating the Des Plaines Police Department's handling of the grant.
It is unclear whether Des Plaines will be asked to return any portion of the grant funds used.
For the 2011-12 fiscal year, Des Plaines was awarded a grant for roughly $115,236 from STEP. The money allows local police departments to have officers work overtime to ticket seat-belt violators and drunken drivers. Des Plaines' grant amount was the third largest among roughly 150 agencies statewide and the highest in the Northwest suburban region.
During Des Plaines' 2011 Labor Day campaign -- which resulted in 1,060 citations, the highest number of any suburban department -- some of the money reimbursed to the city may have been paid to cover costs of regular patrols, rather than overtime as designated in the grant program, according to Des Plaines officials.
At the time IDOT suspended the grant in March, a total of $22,504 had been paid out to the city with the remainder of the grant funds being frozen.
It is unclear whether Des Plaines can apply for future grants.
"We're going to have some conversation with U.S. Department of Transportation and other entities that we may apply to, to ensure that they are satisfied that we are doing our due diligence, and ensure that there is no more potential for problems," Kushner said.