PHILADELPHIA - The city's Inspector General opens an investigation at Mayor Jim Kenney's urging after FOX 29 Investigates asked questions about a city retirement bash.
It was a three-hour affair complete with a bar. We knew it was a big celebration when we saw more than 20 city vehicles come rolling in. We asked were some water department workers paid to party? FOX 29's Jeff Cole has this report.
You'd have thought it was a convention for the city water department, or a big meeting on how to better deliver water services to its millions of customers.
The city vehicles jamming the parking lot of Gallo's Seafood in Northeast Philly on Friday, March 4, were not driven there for serious business, but for a party.
"I think it was a nice sendoff for someone who is, I mean a really good guy," said Philadelphia Water Department Commissioner Debra McCarty.
The retirement party was for Jerry Stokes, a 38-year employee, seen on video leaving his three-hour bash.
And Mayor Kenney's newly-minted boss of the water department, who attended the party in her city car, is not happy we're asking about it.
McCarty said, "I feel bad that his party, his sendoff, is being tainted with this."
Tainted with what? Apparently our questions about the gala held at Gallo's in the middle of the workday. At first, the city told us all of its workers were off the clock. But our investigation finds that just wasn't accurate.
Working off a tip that the big sendoff would be held, FOX 29 Investigates rolled up to Northeast Philly and found city vehicles parked in the restaurant's lot before noon.
We watched as the department's fleet came flowing in – SUVs, even a truck, all emblazoned with "PWD" and vehicle numbers on the back.
There was even a fire department SUV there.
We took a swing around the lot and pulled numbers. Then, we gave our list to the city and asked who was behind the wheel.
In what the Kenney administration said was an effort to be transparent, it provided documents showing 21 city vehicles and drivers having been at the party.
That's just the drivers. We watched groups of workers walking into the celebration.
Our FOX 29 Investigates photographer snapped a shot of the party held in a private room.
"Why not have it outside of normal work hours?" Cole asked.
"I mean I guess that is one way to look at it," McCarty said, later adding, "I'm not sure what the issue really could be in the middle of the day."
Remember, the city first told us all workers were off the clock. So, to check, we made what's called a right-to-know request for their timesheets.
We've been told it will take a month, but Water Commissioner McCarty – apparently concerned about our request – says she took a hard look at the timesheets after we asked for them.
Cole: "So, you think this is OK because everybody was off the clock?"
McCarty: "If everybody was off the clock, it should be fine, that's right."
Cole: "Was everybody off the clock?"
McCarty: "Well, I have to tell you that – you know, the right-to-know for timesheets – in gathering that information, I reviewed every single timesheet that you requested and got some concerns about some folks, and we're looking into that."
FOX 29 obtained city payroll information, which backs McCarty's reason for concern. While the records show some workers using vacation or comp time to cover hours spent at the party, others didn't.
Like water department worker Gary Dunlap, who drove to the shindig in a city SUV. Payroll documents indicate he worked a regular shift the day of the party, with some overtime tossed in.
On the phone, Dunlap said his boss told him it was a "business luncheon." That's why he didn't clock out. Commissioner McCarty disputes that.
Department worker William Connors showed up at Gallo's in a city sedan he drives to and from work. Payroll records show a regular day worked for him, as well. Reached by phone, he refused to talk.
The commissioner says at least six water department workers – Dunlap says he's one of them – will be disciplined after her review of their timesheets, prompted by our questions.
"As you know, I don't play with that stuff," McCarty said.
Near the corner of Venango Street and Frankford Avenue, merchant Barry Zenstein is ripped.
The merchant complains the water department has been working just down the street from his cell phone store for two years and it's not good for business.
"They come out, they dig it up, they put the plate back on, and they don't give us any answers," Zenstein said.
Guess what he thought of a retirement party right smack in the middle of the day?
"They have work to do. I can't take off in the middle of the afternoon if I wanted to," Zenstein said. "Why should they take off? There's work to do."
And there's something else. There are rules that govern the use of Philadelphia city vehicles. They read: "vehicles must be used for official city business."
Employees will avoid any vehicle use which "might result in or create the appearance of impropriety."
Then, there's the big one, absolutely no drinking and driving.
So, why was there a bar serving up stiff drinks just outside the retirement party? We watched folks drink and go back inside.
Cole: "So do we know whether anybody drank and got into a city vehicle?"
McCarty: "There were a lot of retirees there. … When I went past the bar when I came in and when I left, none of those were current city employees that I saw there."
Cole: "You certainly weren't looking the whole three hours, obviously."
McCarty: "That's right, I was not, because I expect people to do the right thing."
McCarty says it was OK to attend the party. The problem was not taking time off. She said she thinks most people did take the time off.
Ernest Garrett, a business agent with 394 District Council 33, called Thursday to tell FOX 29 that the people attending the party were all water department managers, not rank-and-file workers.
The fire department says its preliminary investigation finds no violation in its employee being there for an hour and a half.
But now the city's inspector general will weigh in on all this, Cole reported.