State suspends safety grant until Des Plaines explains reporting problem
The Illinois Department of Transportation has suspended a federal grant awarded to Des Plaines for traffic safety campaigns due to the city's possible overreporting of DUI arrest numbers, documents show.
Des Plaines city officials alerted IDOT about the accounting problem when it was first discovered last spring, 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, Des Plaines Mayor Marty Moylan said.
"As soon as one of our deputy chiefs was informed that there could be some misappropriations, then we moved up the chain and started the investigation," Moylan said. "Certainly, we were concerned. We acted upon it immediately. It's important that we get to the bottom of this. We're confident that the individuals that were irresponsible in their duties will be weeded out, and we will have a better 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 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.
The city is conducting its own internal audit of traffic enforcement records to determine whether the numbers reported to the state were accurate, and it must report its findings to the state. The city is looking into all DUI arrests between 2009 and 2012, and reviewing all seat-belt violations since 2008, according to documents.
"We are awaiting the results of that investigation before deciding if any additional steps are necessary," IDOT spokesman Guy Tridgell said. "If it's determined any funds were misused, they will be returned (by Des Plaines)."
According to the March email between the city and IDOT, an initial review showed no clear signs of a misrepresentation of overtime hours officers actually worked.
However, the city is looking into Veit's overtime pay, as well as that of other employees who worked on traffic safety campaigns funded by the grant, City Manager Mike Bartholomew said.
"We will look into everyone that was involved in the program," Bartholomew said.
Bartholomew said the city has an outside law firm helping with the records audit and has cooperated with IDOT's requests for information.
However, the internal investigation has not gotten much traction. Scrutinizing the grant program and overseeing the investigation will be the top priority for incoming Police Chief William Kushner, who takes the reins Sept. 4, he said.
"It has gone on too long at this point," Bartholomew said. "We're going to have to take a more active role once the new chief is on board. It is IDOT that is reviewing the information to see if there is any impropriety. Everyone makes mistakes, and we are doing everything we can do to correct this problem and to avoid all future problems. It's been a long process. I am doing everything I can to move it as expeditiously as possible."
For the 2011-12 fiscal year, Des Plaines was awarded a grant for roughly $115,236 from the federally funded Sustained Traffic Enforcement Program. The monies allow 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, Tridgell said.
The state has not specified a deadline for when Des Plaines' investigation should be completed because it has no precedent of overreporting by any law enforcement agency.
"This has not happened before," Tridgell said.
A spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration -- the agency that doles out the funds -- declined to comment and referred all questions to IDOT. The agency relies on reports from the state to determine future funding and rarely examines departmental results.