The comptroller’s office has launched an investigation to determine how many city employees are on paid leave, why and for how long, and how much it costs taxpayers, according to the city’s chief auditor, who testified Tuesday before the Common Council’s Civil Service Committee.
The comptroller’s inquiry is a response to Investigative Post’s report on Jill Repman, formerly Jill Parisi, an administrative assistant for the Buffalo Fire Department who was on paid leave for seven and half years. The city has paid Repman nearly $600,000 since suspending her in 2016, when she was accused of tampering with the department’s payroll to pad her check.
For at least six of those years, she worked a private-sector job, managing payroll for a home healthcare company. She was ordered back to work earlier this month, after Investigative Post began to inquire about her employment status.
The comptroller’s inquiry could lead to a full-blown audit of how city departments use administrative leave, Kevin Kaufman, the city auditor, told the Civil Service Committee. He said the investigation is a first step toward determining whether such an audit — which could take six months or more — is justified.
“It’s basically a fact-finding mission that we would do at the beginning of any audit,” Kaufman said. “Every step we’ve done so far would be part of a normal audit.”
Kaufman said his initial review of payroll records found 12 city employees had been “suspended with pay” since July 1, the beginning of the city’s current fiscal year. Of those, four had returned to work and one had resigned, leaving seven.
On Thursday, the comptroller’s office will issue 3,113 paychecks, Kaufman said.
He added that the number of employees the city pays to stay at home was “a very consistent number” — “two to three per thousand,” he said — according to his review of the last five years of payroll records.
But Kaufman cautioned that the investigation had just begun and would require the cooperation of the mayor’s office and the heads of each city department, particularly to learn why individual employees were put on paid leave.
Those questions, Kaufman said, would need to be answered by department heads and the city’s Human Resources Department.
“Pursuing personnel matters is not something the comptroller’s office is normally involved in,” he said.
Kaufmann appeared before the committee in lieu of his boss, Comptroller Barbara Miller-Williams, who has been engaged in a war of words with Fillmore District Council Member Mitch Nowakowski for the past week and a half.
Nowakowski, who chairs the Civil Service Committee, filed a resolution last Monday asking the comptroller to determine how many cases like Repman’s there were on the city payroll. In an interview last week with Investigative Post — and in a press release she issued Friday — Miller-Williams took umbrage at the suggestion that the Council could order her office to do an audit. She also bristled at Nowakowski’s inclusion of her office in the list of city agencies that had failed to detect and rectify the Repman case.
“He’s trying to include our office in this whole debacle,” Miller-Williams said in a phone interview. “When at the end of the day, there’s no way we can monitor hundreds and thousands of people to know exactly where they’re at, what they’re doing, et cetera.”
That responsibility, Miller-Williams said, falls to departmental timekeepers who track employee hours worked, as well as “a division head, all the way up to a commissioner” to certify the payrolls they submit to the comptroller.
Back when she was an active employee, Repman’s duties included managing payroll for the fire department.
The city brought administrative charges against Repman in 2016, after then Comptroller Mark Schroeder’s office discovered that federal deductions from her paycheck had been reduced The comptroller alleged Repman used her access to the department’s payroll system to make the changes in order to increase her take-home pay.
Mayor Byron Brown’s administration suspended Repman and brought administrative charges against her, but never held an arbitration hearing to resolve those charges.
Instead, the city kept paying her, even after she took managing payroll for Allwel Western New York, a home healthcare company, which has since removed Repman’s employee profile from its website.
Miller-Williams told Investigative Post last week that when she became aware of the Repman story, she assigned Demone Smith, her new special assistant, to investigate.
Smith is a former Masten District Council Member and a long-time member of Grassroots, the mayor’s political club. In 2015, the mayor made Smith the director of the Buffalo Employment Training Center, despite Smith’s being fined by the state board of elections for his persistent failure to file state-mandated campaign finance disclosures — and then failing to pay those fines.
He left the BETC job last month to take the post of special assistant to Miller-Williams, at a pay cut — from $104,697 to $94,760, according to state payroll records and the appointment notice filed with the Council.
Smith was present at Tuesday’s Civil Service Committee meeting but did not speak for the comptroller’s office. That job was left to Kaufman, the city auditor.
Kaufman told the committee an audit “typically takes about six months, depending on the subject matter.”
Asked how long it would take to complete the preliminary investigation — including the “fact-finding mission” specific to the Repman case — Kaufman said it depended on the level of cooperation the comptroller’s office received from the Brown administration.
“We need some further information from the administration to determine what went wrong” in the Repman case, he said.
Kaufman said that a letter seeking that information was being drafted and would be sent to the mayor’s office and other department heads later that same day.
Also present at the committee meeting were Fire Commissioner William Renaldo, whose department has been paying Repman since she was suspended in 2016, and Human Resources Commissioner Gladys Herndon-Hill.
Council members did not direct any questions to Renaldo.
University District Council Member Rasheed Wyatt asked Herndon-Hill what her department’s role would be, should the comptroller’s office uncover wrongdoing in the Repman affair. Herndon-Hill said her department had no role, and that any such finding would need to be addressed to the city’s law department and director of labor relations.
After the committee meeting ended, an Investigative Post reporter asked Nowakowski if he trusted the comptroller to get to the bottom of the matter and the mayor to cooperate, given the Brown administration’s efforts to stonewall Investigative Post’s reporting on the Repman matter.
Nowakowski replied that he was “disappointed” and “aggravated” that Miller-Williams had not come in person to answer questions.
“But I do trust the city auditor,” he said.