[StBernard] Parish's overtime raises eyebrows
westley at da-parish.com
Sun Apr 30 10:46:16 EDT 2006
Parish's overtime raises eyebrows
St. Bernard spends millions in extra pay
Sunday, April 30, 2006
By Karen Turni Bazile
and Paul Rioux
"I'm mad as hell about it. We're broke, and we're throwing money away left
St. Bernard Parish Council chairman
In the first seven months after Hurricane Katrina devastated St. Bernard
Parish, the tax-starved parish government paid millions of dollars in
overtime wages and hired more than 150 temporary employees, including
relatives of parish officials, moves that now have sparked an outcry from
the Parish Council and an investigation by the FBI.
Between Aug. 29 and late March, St. Bernard spent $3.4 million on overtime
wages, payroll documents show, with the payouts in the period immediately
following the storm reaching up to 40 times the prestorm rate.
The unfettered overtime pay was made possible by federal emergency
management rules that allow federal reimbursement for overtime earned by
government workers, but not for regular pay. In addition, St. Bernard Parish
President Henry "Junior" Rodriguez ordered parish workers to put in 20 hours
a day during the emergency, and parish rules require that all work during
such an emergency be compensated at a rate of time and a half.
As a result, more than 160 employees saw their paychecks balloon to five or
six times their normal size in the first two weeks after the storm, payroll
records show. Overall, 48 employees, including several salaried parish
administrators, netted at least $20,000 in overtime in the four months after
the hurricane, according to the documents.
Some of the highest-paid temporary employees, three doctors and six nurses,
together raked in $1.1 million in regular pay and overtime to staff a
makeshift clinic for seven months, even though FEMA officials said federal
personnel provided medical services in the parish during much of that
period. And Rodriguez's temporary driver and bodyguard collected nearly
$42,000 in storm pay through March 26.
No elected official received overtime pay. But some officials and critics
worry that the spending, paid with federal money, could fuel criticism that
aid sent to Louisiana after the storm is being wasted, making it harder for
St. Bernard and the rest of the New Orleans area to lobby Congress for more
Sen. Mary Landrieu's spokesman, Brian Richardson, said that should be a
"The vast majority of community leaders and state leaders are working in
good faith and doing the best they can to rebuild our state," Richardson
said. "I think there are some folks in Washington who are looking for
excuses to not help the state."
Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a national
nonpartisan watchdog organization, took a dimmer view: "Documented
misspending and having the FBI investigating you and having cronyism and
nepotism on the payroll is always going to hurt you in your standing in
attracting further resources," Ellis said. "People across the country saw
the devastation that occurred in the parish, and the parish is going to need
the support of the American people and the support of the federal government
to rebuild and move forward. Stuff like this really shoots them in the
Politics aside, the overtime bonanza also has drawn more ominous attention.
Larry Ingargiola, St. Bernard's director of Homeland Security and Emergency
Preparedness, said three FBI agents questioned him last month about multiple
spending matters, including the overtime pay.
The interview was part of a broad federal investigation revealed last month
that is also examining St. Bernard's contracts for debris pickup, temporary
trailers, and the removal of hazardous waste and sewage, according to four
people questioned by the FBI.
Parish officials have denied wrongdoing. Addressing the overtime, they said
no one was improperly paid and that the expense was justified, considering
that parish employees and first responders worked almost nonstop and in
hellish conditions in a parish where Katrina flooded nearly every structure
and suspended basic services for months.
"The storm was a significant event, and you see significant overtime. That's
indisputable. But everything was done by the book," said Danny Menesses, who
until his resignation on April 21 was Rodriguez' top manager.
Councilwoman Judy Hoffmeister isn't so sure. With FEMA closely monitoring
post-Katrina spending, paying people for working 20 hours a day for 14 days
is pushing your luck, she said.
Councilman Craig Taffaro has called the runaway overtime issue a sign that
the council must get a better grip on spending.
Though FEMA has tentatively approved all the overtime through Dec. 31, the
FBI is likely to be curious about a policy that resulted in two employees
clocking more than 24 hours a day during the entire two-week period after
the storm. The parish explains the superhuman achievement by noting that
some hours were carried over from the previous pay period. According to
documents, an additional 63 employees apparently worked 23 hours a day for
14 days. But parish officials said the documents actually include prestorm
work from a previous pay period and that the employees worked 20-hour days.
Huge need after storm
Parish officials say the overtime expense was triggered mostly by the
parish's gargantuan needs. In the storm's immediate aftermath, firefighters
and other employees worked nearly around the clock to rescue thousands of
residents stranded on rooftops or trapped in attics. Days of emergency work
turned into weeks, officials said.
"You didn't sleep at all during those first couple of days," Fire Chief
Thomas Stone said. "How could you, when people's lives were at stake?"
Stone said that 48 hours into the rescue efforts, he started ordering
firefighters to rest for a few hours. Many could not. One firefighter taken
by helicopter to a Baton Rouge hospital to be treated for exhaustion showed
up six hours later after hitching a ride back to St. Bernard, Stone said.
"They went well above and beyond the call of duty," he said. "Anything they
got in terms of overtime pay, they deserved."
While applauding the rescuers' heroic efforts, several Parish Council
members said they had sticker shock a few months later when they saw the
$766,279 overtime bill for the first two weeks after the storm. That's
nearly 40 times the $19,926 overtime total for the normal biweekly pay
period immediately before the storm, even though the parish's pre-Katrina
work force of nearly 570 is down by more than 160 permanent employees.
"I'm mad as hell about it," council Chairman Lynn Dean said. "We're broke,
and we're throwing money away left and right."
Several council members said they were troubled by the long list of
employees who have received more than $20,000 in overtime since the storm.
The list's top overtime earners were Water and Sewer Director Chris Merkl
and Purchasing Agent Kathy Bayham, who earned a total of $35,719 and
$34,440, respectively, in the four months after the storm. Bayham was
covered by Rodriguez's order to work 20 hours a day at overtime rates during
the first two weeks after the storm. Overtime pay for top department heads
did not kick in until after 40 hours were worked in a week.
Most council members put in long hours, but none collected more than their
$600 monthly stipend as part-time elected officials. They blasted the
20-hour overtime policy when they learned of it.
"I know we all worked very hard in the beginning, but 20 hours a day for two
weeks is stretching it. You can't keep that up," Hoffmeister said.
She called the 20-hour figure particularly dubious for the dozens of
employees who didn't help with rescue efforts.
One worker who came in for $20,000 in overtime during four months was the
director of the parish's government-access TV channel. Ken Winters was paid
to document the storm and recovery and cobble together a channel on local
airwaves in the absence of cable services.
Menesses said employees earned the overtime pay because they were required
to stay in the government complex, where the storm surge filled the first
floor with about 15 feet of water, forcing those inside to the roof, where
they slept for two days..
"The first two weeks, we told (employees) that you had to be here and you
had to leave your family or you were fired," he said.
Rodriguez, who received no overtime above his $70,000 salary, defended his
decision to pay employees for 20 hours a day in the beginning, regardless of
how many hours employees actually worked. He said workers faced grueling
conditions, including overflowing toilets and shortages of food and water,
and they had little or no contact with their families. Employees had to dig
latrines for nearly 9,000 rescued residents who stayed for days until they
were sent across the river on the Algiers ferry.
"They were stuck here. They couldn't leave," he said. "We have to pay
Scrambling for money
If FEMA reneges on reimbursing the parish, council members said they worry
about where they will find the money to pay for overtime and to pay the slew
of temporary employees who were taken on.
Katrina wiped out much of St. Bernard's tax base, with current collections
reaching only a fraction of pre-Katrina levels. That leaves insufficient
funds to cover normal payroll expenses, let alone the additional costs.
Finance Director Geremie Loupe said the parish expects FEMA to pay for much
of the overtime, though not the salaries of the temporary medical hires.
In the meantime, the parish is using an $8.9 million federal community
disaster loan to pay salaries and other day-to-day operating costs through
June 30. After that, the parish is counting on the majority of employees to
do FEMA-reimbursable work so the parish can afford its remaining payroll.
For instance, firefighters will be required to do road, water and sewer
repairs to qualify for FEMA reimbursement.
Menesses said some overtime costs were the result of a staffing policy
requiring essential employees to be paid time and a half for all hours
worked during a state of emergency.
When combined with Rodriguez's decision to pay employees 20 hours per day
for the first 14 days, the policy enabled them to rack up 280 hours of time
and a half in the first two-week pay period. This translated to $10,000 to
$18,000 in overtime for the highest-paid employees, and $4,000 to $7,000 for
the average worker, according to payroll records.
"I had one of the worst disasters in history, and it created a massive
amount of work to be done," Menesses said. "Under our policy, that led to a
massive amount of overtime."
But under the same policy, the parish was able to reduce the overtime rates
in subsequent pay periods. The parish law says employees will be paid time
and a half for all hours worked during a declared emergency "pursuant to
provisions of the (federal) Fair Labor Standards Act." But Menesses said
federal law simply requires employers to pay overtime wages after 40 hours
in a given week.
Menesses said the parish used the federal standard for pay periods beyond
the immediate weeks following the storm, eliminating time-and-a-half pay for
the first 40 hours each week. Combined with a 50-hour-per week cap on
overtime that Rodriguez imposed two weeks after the storm, the parish
slashed overtime costs from $766,000 for the first two weeks after Katrina
to $289,000 for the following pay period.
Menesses said he has consulted with a labor attorney to propose policy
revisions and limit future overtime costs.
"The problem is that no one ever anticipated an emergency of this
magnitude," he said. "Other emergencies lasted two or three days and then we
were back to normal. This one has lasted more than six months, and we're
still not out of it."
But council members questioned why the parish did not use the most
restrictive interpretation of the overtime policy in the storm's immediate
"There's a difference between legitimate compensation and profiteering off
the disaster," said Taffaro, who is advocating a review of staffing
After learning about the runaway overtime costs in November, the council the
following month reinstated normal payroll practices by Jan. 1. It's also
reviewing all temporary employees every three months.
"This had to stop," council Vice Chairman Joey DiFatta said. "The
administration tells us, 'Hey, FEMA is paying for this.' But it doesn't
matter. Right is right."
Nonetheless, the parish is still paying about $135,000 in overtime every two
weeks, according to the payroll records, compared to prestorm levels that
fluctuated between $20,000 and $100,000 per pay period. However, the figures
closer to $100,000 included cleanup work from earlier storms.
Rodriguez attributed the ongoing overtime to the monumental task of
rebuilding the parish. Up until about a month ago, he said, he had staffed
key departments seven days a week, including the permits office and the
"These are not normal times," Rodriguez said. "Just ride around the parish,
and see if you see anything normal."
Many temp workers
The large overtime expense is not the only payroll issue raising eyebrows.
Council members are also criticizing some of the expenditures among the 150
temporary workers hired to replace about 30 percent of the parish's work
force who did not return after the storm.
Only 58 of those temporary workers remain on the parish payroll. But between
the storm and March 26 the parish spent $1.8 million on temporary workers.
Several of the temporaries are related to current employees, including top
parish administrators. Among them is Mike Abadie, brother of Alan Abadie,
executive counsel to Rodriguez. Parish records show Mike Abadie has been
paid about $42,000 since the storm working as a driver and bodyguard for
Rodriguez, 70, who no longer drives after a lengthy hospital stay stemming
from gall bladder surgery and an angioplasty heart procedure last summer.
Mike Abadie, who was deputized and carries a gun, declined to comment.
Rodriguez has said he needs a bodyguard because he sometimes travels into
unsafe or uninhabited areas.
Also hired as temporary workers were Ingargiola's wife, daughter, son and
daughter-in-law, who all worked for the parish after the storm. None are
The emergency preparedness chief's wife, Brenda Ingargiola, a registered
nurse, was paid $52,788, and their daughter, Lisa Ingargiola, a licensed
practical nurse, received $35,413 for helping staff a makeshift clinic after
the storm flooded Chalmette Medical Center, the parish's only hospital.
Brenda and Lisa Ingargiola stopped working for the parish April 2, when a
private group took over health care in Chalmette.
Larry Ingargiola said his wife, who had been an administrator for years at
Chalmette Medical Center, probably would have worked at the clinic even if
she hadn't been paid.
"I don't think it would have changed anything," he said. "She told me,
'Where am I going to go? I want to be here with you.' "
Their son, Joseph "Larry" Ingargiola Jr., was paid $3,126 to run errands for
parish officials Sept. 1-25.
Larry Ingargiola said his daughter-in-law, Missy Ingargiola, a pharmacist,
worked for three weeks helping catalog medicines at the makeshift clinic,
but was not paid because her payroll paperwork was lost. He said she did not
resubmit the paperwork.
"It wasn't about the money," he said.
Rodriguez said the hiring of relatives was a result of who was available to
work after the storm.
"If they were there and they were willing to work, they got a job. It's as
simple as that," said Rodriguez, who has the authority to make such hires
and set pay rates. "I didn't worry about whether I liked the SOB or not. I
needed help, so I hired them."
Hoffmeister said hiring should have been more transparent.
"All of a sudden, everybody was on the payroll and we had no idea what their
responsibilities were," she said.
A health crisis
Perhaps the most critical issue about temporary workers, from a fiscal
standpoint, is the $1.1 million the parish spent for the doctors and nurses
who staffed a makeshift clinic for seven months after the storm. The federal
government has told the parish it will not reimburse the money, which
covered, among others, three doctors who were paid $125 an hour, earning a
combined total of about $625,000.
Among them was the parish's coroner, Bryan Bertucci, who was paid $190,687,
the records show. He also received his salary for serving as coroner, a post
financed with sales tax and state money.
Rodriguez said the parish faced a health care crisis because it had no
operating medical facility when thousands of evacuated residents, many of
them dehydrated or injured, began arriving at a makeshift shelter in a
warehouse in the St. Bernard Port, Harbor and Terminal District.
"We were very, very fortunate to have the doctors and nurses stay and work
with us," Rodriguez said.
The temporary medical employees were terminated April 2, the day before two
Catholic health care systems took the reins of the St. Bernard Health Center
and hired much of the local medical staff to continue the operation in a
temporary building in the Wal-Mart Supercenter parking lot.
Rodriguez said FEMA officials told him they couldn't reimburse the parish
for the temporary medical staff because St. Bernard didn't have a publicly
run hospital before the storm. Chalmette Medical Center, which has not
reopened, was run by Universal Health Services. The parish is appealing the
But much of the parish's expense in medical staff occurred at the same time
that federal personnel were providing medical care in St. Bernard, according
to FEMA's federal coordinating officer, Scott Wells. Wells said the U.S.
Public Health Service helped staff a free clinic in St. Bernard through
April 1. Also, FEMA is spending $5.8 million for a medical building and
$375,000 for medical equipment for the health center, FEMA spokesman Leo
Menesses said the parish recently completed justifying spending $3.1 million
in FEMA funds given in advance to pay for part of the overtime and temporary
employee costs. The accounting is required to get FEMA's retroactive
To bolster its case, the parish sent the agency photographs of 25 employees
sleeping on a roof immediately after the storm, and a video showing the
primitive living conditions.
Although the request for reimbursement has yet to be approved, Menesses said
FEMA officials have voiced no concerns about how much the parish spent on
overtime and temporary workers.
A FEMA spokeswoman said she couldn't comment on the parish's pending
reimbursement requests, but she said there is no cap on the number of hours
per day employees can be paid for during an emergency. In general, the
Stafford Act authorizes pay for overtime and for temporary employees hired
to do certain storm reconstruction work, Menesses said.
The FBI is also examining the expenses. Ingargiola said the FBI agents who
questioned him last month inquired about allegations that people were paid
for more hours than they could possibly work.
"They told me that they were investigating allegations that some employees
were paid for more than 24 hours per day," he said.
Payroll records show two parish employees were paid for 340 hours in the
first two-week period after the storm. That's more than the 336 hours that
could be accumulated by working 24 hours a day for 14 days, but Menesses
said the 340-hour total includes 60 hours from the previous pay period when
key employees were completing storm preparations.
Noting that federal help was slow to arrive in St. Bernard after the storm,
some officials are indignant that the FBI is questioning whether parish
employees were paid too much.
"We were busting our asses," Ingargiola said. "They left us to fend for
ourselves, and it pisses me off to have people thinking we did something
wrong. We were out there trying to save St. Bernard, trying to save
Chris Merkl, who has since been named Public Works director, topped the list
of overtime earners with a total of $35,700, including $14,711 the two weeks
after the storm. He said both he and the parish have nothing to hide.
"We were there and we were working our butts off. That's all there is to
it," Merkl said. "What are they going to say? That we were ghosts?"
. . . . . . .
Karen Turni Bazile can be reached at kturni at timespicayune.com or (504)
Paul Rioux can be reached at prioux at timespicayune.com or (985) 645-2852.
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