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I-TEAM INVESTIGATION

Audit suggests city officials pay money back

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KINGSTON SPRINGS, TN (WSMV) -

An audit conducted by the city of Kingston Springs following a Channel 4 I-Team investigation suggests that three city employees, including two officials, should pay tax dollars back to the city, and all employees be banned from the volunteer fire department's incentive program.

It's all a result of the findings from a Channel 4 I-Team investigation that raised questions about alleged double dipping using tax dollars.

"You (the Channel 4 I-Team) asked questions, we started looking," said Tony Campbell, mayor of Kingston Springs.

"Do it you think it looks questionable?" asked chief investigative reporter Jeremy Finley.

"I can see how somebody would question it, yes. And that's why we're going to change it (the incentive program)," Campbell said.

A Channel 4 I-Team investigation found two city officials and a public safety officer finding ways to make extra money during their work day, including essentially getting paid tax dollars twice in the same day.

The investigation began when we observed Kingston Springs police/fire chief Eugene Ivey running his mowing business just after 3 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 5. The city confirms that Ivey "roughly" works until 5 p.m. on Thursdays.

We also saw public works director Clint Biggers working for Ivey to mow lawns. We watched Biggers leave the office before 3 p.m. to go mow, and he's scheduled to work until 3 p.m. each day. Public works directors in four similar-sized cities all work until 3:30 or 4 p.m.

Biggers and Ivey make combined salaries of more than $100,000 a year.

But it's the other way the Channel 4 I-Team found these city officials making extra money during the standard work day that prompted the audit.

Biggers, Ivey and public safety officer Jeremy Vaughan are all volunteer firefighters as well.

Through the city's incentive program, when volunteer firefighters respond to emergencies, they get a point from each call. Those points are added up at the end of the year and the volunteers are given money.

To avoid double dipping, salaried employees with the city are forbidden from getting the incentive points while they're already on their city job.

If the city employees who are volunteer firefighters respond to emergencies on the time off, then they can get the points.

But the Channel 4 I-Team found that in a two-year time period, Ivey and Vaughan both got incentive points to responding to calls while they were already on duty.

Vaughan is prohibited from getting the incentive points while he is working his city job, but the Channel 4 I-Team found him getting those points during his shift.

The Channel 4 I-Team found over a two-year period, the three got incentive points more than 140 times when they were already on duty.

For example, on Wednesday, March 9, 2011, all three were already at their jobs at 10:12 in the morning. A call went out for a vehicle accident, and even though all three were already working, incident reports indicate they got incentive points.

Biggers never responded to our calls and emails for comment, and Vaughan and Ivey refused to interview with us on camera.

The Channel 4 I-Team caught up with Chief Ivey after a recent training.

"There are some who thought that you are double dipping. What's your reaction to that?" asked Finley.

Ivey closed the door to his truck without answering.

Mayor Campbell said none of the three city employees intended to cheat the system, but rather the problem is poor record keeping.

The Channel 4 I-Team has also uncovered more questionable practices in that incentive program.

We've reviewed hundreds of incident reports and training forms that are used in order to earn the incentive pay.

We found, over and over again, that neither Ivey or Vaughan initialed the documents to prove that they attended the training or were on standby or responded to an emergency, while many of the other volunteer firefighters did initial the forms.

On many of the incident reports, Ivey and Biggers were on standby, which means they never physically responded to the call.

On one training form, we found a heart drawn next to Ivey's name where there should have been an initial.

We found repeatedly in the incentive sheets for emergencies that Ivey and Biggers got the incentive points, but never initialed the forms.

In several cases, we found someone else put their initials in the blank next to Ivey's name.

Campbell said none of the volunteer firefighters are required to initial the forms and that someone who attended the training or responded to an emergency was supposed to keep track of who was there.

That doesn't explain, though, why so many other firefighters actually did initial the forms.

Ivey sent an email, reading in part, "I am not involved in the counting of the calls for the incentive plan. Initials and signatures are not required on the incident or training sheets. Often the names are checked as responding by a firefighter who is filling out the incident sheet. Sometimes they may put their own initials to indicate that they were the ones entering that name. More often, it is left blank."

The question remains how the city is sure who actually attended the training and responded to the emergencies.

As a result of our investigation, City Manager Laurie Cooper launched an audit and found city employees did in fact earn incentive points and pay that they did not deserve.

Cooper is now recommending, "Employees who received any funds due to this mistake will be required to return the unearned funds."

But it is unclear how much of that money will have to be repaid because the city only keeps incident forms for the last three years, and the program has been in place for the last 10 years.

Cooper is also recommending that all city employees now be banned from the incentive program and the oversight of the program be moved to a different department.

We also asked Campbell about the mowing.

"Do you have a problem with your police chief and the head of public works mowing during a typical work day?" Finley asked.

"It depends. Mr. Ivey doesn't work on Fridays. He hasn't for years," Campbell said.

The video of mowing we captured, by the way, was taken on a Thursday afternoon.

It is difficult to say at this point how much money was incorrectly paid to the three city employees.

The Channel 4 I-Team reviewed how the money is paid in the incentive program, and we found about $27,000 a year is set aside for volunteer firefighters each year.

But the Channel 4 I-Team found the most money made through this system isn't by responding to fire calls, but buy simply having the highest rank.

We found Ivey received 1927 points in 2012 to receive the incentive pay, but he got 1,460 of those points simply for just being the fire chief. The remainder of the points he got from training or being on standby or responding to calls.

After we presented our findings, the city did an internal audit of just 2011, and they say about $350 went to the three city employees while they were already on duty that should have gone to their fellow firefighters. But that's just one year, and this program has been in place for 10 years.

Copyright 2013 WSMV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.

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