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Updated Sep 6, 2012, 2:15 pm Originally posted Sep 6, 2012, 11:41 am
Five Tucson streets workers — including a division administrator - are no longer employed after an 11-month investigation of improper use of city equipment and materials led the city to move to fire them.
City officials allege the workers performed side jobs for personal gain at the city's expense, and that a Department of Transportation leader "treated the Streets division as a personal enterprise."
The activities went on for at least eight years, dating to 2004, city documents said.
Streets and Traffic Maintenance Division administrator Kurt Hough, who was placed on leave last November, resigned Wednesday rather than be fired.
Of the four other division workers targeted for dismissal by the city, supervisor Fred Gradillas retired and equipment operator Robert Palomarez resigned rather than face termination, while equipment operators Fernando Martinez and Dan Carpenter were fired.
The employees were given the opportunity to contest the allegations in "pre-discharge meetings" mandated by civil service rules.
Officials said in papers documenting Hough's alleged wrong-doing that he "created a hostile workplace environment" and that "concern for retaliation delayed reporting of wrongful conduct."
The activities of Hough and the others were "foolish," said incoming Transportation Director Daryl Cole.
While a total cost for the alleged wrongdoing was not available, Cole said they were likely "in the five figures," with more than six figures spent on salaries for employees suspended during the investigation.
Attempts to reach Hough and the other employees for comment were not immediately successful.
The documents said Hough did many side jobs using city equipment and materials, including paving the driveway at his own Midtown home.
One job, placing a concrete slab on a city lot for Hough and his "motorcycle buddies" to park on, cost the city $7,883, the documents said. The slab had to be constructed twice, because it set too quickly the first time, the documents said.
While many of the side jobs detailed in the firing documents are listed as costing the city several hundred dollars, what is apparently the largest project alleged to be performed with city materials by on-the-clock employees does not have a cost laid out.
The documents said Hough and other employees graded and paved a parking lot and built a retaining wall at Kelly Electric's West Miracle Mile property from October 2006 to July 2007.
"This was a large project, involving several Streets' (sic) employees (at least 5), both on and off duty, and several pieces of City equipment including a concrete saw, a loader, a dump truck, a roller, grader and water truck," investigators said.
The document detailing the reasons the city moved to fire Hough said he was in debt to Kelly Electric CEO Ken Kelly for $5,000.
Hough also helped Kelly build a BMX track at the home of a friend, the documents said.
Hough directed Palomarez to deliver some 20 tons of fill dirt to a residence in Vail for the construction of a dirt bike track, according to the documents.
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According to the papers, although Palomarez denied completing the delivery, the city said he told a Streets employee to deliver the dirt and met him at the location.
Investigators said the home's resident said someone dumped 15 tons of dirt at his house.
Kelly did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Other incidents recorded by investigators included paving potholes on a private drive in the Valencia/Midvale Park area, and helping Pima County workers do paving work on the Mt. Lemmon Highway.
Palomarez allegedly ordered city employees to work on side jobs at an East Side church, a former Shakey's Pizza location on the South Side, a Rosati's Pizza parking lot in Midtown and other private properties.
Investigators told Palomarez that the incidents were "a misuse of City equipment, personnel and materials for your personal advantage providing a ready supply of dirt for your side jobs at no cost to you."
Palomarez also allegedly provided fill dirt and sand to Sunnyside High School, where his brother is a coach. Investigators said Palomarez had city workers deliver two loads of sand to the school, about two years ago, and a load of clean fill dirt to the baseball field.
A November 2007 paving job at Evergreen Cemetery cost taxpayers about $17,000. Although the city has stored equipment and paving materials at the cemetery, the documents said "there is no formal agreement between the City and Evergreen Cemetery for this purpose and no justification for providing this service on private property for a private entity."
Of the other workers the city moved to fire, Gradillas was accused of covering up wrongdoing with inaccurate records and overseeing work on private road. Martinez and Carpenter were fired for performing side jobs while on the clock for the city.
City officials said that five or six other workers may face discipline related to the investigation, which began a year ago.
City Attorney Mike Rankin wouldn't comment on whether there were other incidents raised in the investigation that couldn't be substantiated enough to be included in the written allegations.
Favoritism, retaliation fears
In September 2011, workers in the Streets division complained of "favoritism and preferential treatment" to the city's Human Resources department, the documents said.
"Interviews with Division employees disclosed information of wrongful conduct resulting in the investigation being turned over to TPD due to possible criminal activity," the documents said.
Hundreds of interviews were conducted during the probe, said Rankin.
Officials said last week that outside agencies, beyond the Tucson Police Department, were involved in the investigation, and that criminal charges are possible.
Rankin said he didn't have information on what the total cost of the investigation was, and that he didn't know the total financial impact of the alleged wrongdoing.
Cole said the side jobs cost the city "in the five figures."
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Six transportation employees have been on imposed leave for months, and been paid over $140,000 total during the course of the investigation, city spokesman Michael Graham said last week.
Since being put on leave last Oct. 14, Hough had been paid $65,000, he said.
Graham declined at the time to name the other employees placed on leave, saying "We're respecting their rights under the civil service process."
Those employees—one was put on leave on April 8, three on May 18 and one of May 21— had been paid a total of $79,000, Graham said.
Thursday, Graham said the targeted workers were likely paid through the end of their city employment on Wednesday.
The Streets division isn't the only Transportation Department unit that's getting a close look.
The City of Tucson is moving to fire another worker in the Transportation Department, and will discipline several others, according to a Aug. 30 memo from the city manager.
Last Thursday morning, one employee in the Engineering Division was issued a notice of intent to discharge, and "several other employees" from that division were given notices of intent to discipline, Manager Richard Miranda told Mayor Jonathan Rothschild and the City Council.
"The notices were served following an investigation into misuse of computers," Miranda wrote.
A source in the Transportation Department said that officials had investigated workers who allegedly viewed Internet pornography on their city computers.