Government & Politics
 

IG official says city’s ex-parking chief hindered investigation of her officers

The city’s former parking director, who is appealing her dismissal, stonewalled the Office of Inspector General last year, a supervisor in that office’s Investigations Division testified at a Civil Service hearing today.

The testimony by Assistant Inspector General for Investigations Howard Schwartz supports the city’s case that Zepporiah Edmonds was properly terminated in part because of her refusal to cooperate with the Office of Inspector General investigation into several parking-control officers.

But another witness, parking employee Sherida Emery, disputed Schwartz’s account, saying that Edmonds tried to work with investigators. Emery also accused Edmonds’ former boss, Department of Public Works Director Mark Jernigan, of trying to dig up information to justify Edmonds’ firing.

Edmonds has accused Jernigan, along with other top city officials, of colluding to get rid of her after she blew the whistle on what she saw as a bid-rigging scheme in 2012.

Edmonds involuntarily retired from her 30-plus years in city employment after she was told that she was to be fired effective Jan. 11.

Schwartz said that Edmonds took months to respond to Eduardo Hernandez, who led the investigation. Hernandez was asking for citation records related to several parking-control officers. These officers were accused of spending their shifts sitting in downtown hotel lobbies and coffee shops, then retaliating against businesses and their customers by writing tickets after being asked to leave.

In his testimony, Schwartz said that Edmonds waited six months to tell Hernandez that the city’s ex-parking ticket contractor, and not the city, had the records he needed. When Hernandez contacted the company, Xerox Corp., a top official said he had never been contacted by anyone from the city asking for the records.

Schwartz also testified that Edmonds initially failed to inform Hernandez that one parking officer had already been disciplined for the kind of activities he was investigating. Schwartz said Edmonds’ actions were out of character because she previously cooperated with the office on investigations, even receiving a commendation letter in 2013.

“Intentionally withholding information is not cooperating,” he said.

In a response to the Inspector General’s findings, Edmonds wrote that Hernandez seemed to be focused on one particular officer. The Office of Inspector General later admitted that the officer had issued Hernandez’s girlfriend several tickets.

The subject of other officers retaliating against hotels never came up until Edmonds brought it to Hernandez’s attention in May 2015, nearly a year after Hernandez began his investigation.

Edmonds has said the charges relating to that investigation are false. The findings in the report, she has said, came at the end of a years-long campaign by city officials to discredit her. The officials, Edmonds complained, were retaliating against her for her complaints about an alleged bid-rigging scheme for a multi-million-dollar parking ticket processing contract in 2012. In an April Civil Service hearing, Edmonds accused former Deputy Mayor Cedric Grant — now head of the Sewerage & Water Board — of being aware of the scheme but doing nothing to stop it. Grant is scheduled to testify at a later hearing date.

Along with her whistleblower appeal to the Civil Service Commission, Edmonds has filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against the city, and the city’s Ethics Review Board is investigating Grant, Jernigan and Linda Copeland, a Department of Public Works employee. The Office of Inspector General was initially part of the investigation, but the board cleared it in March.

Michael Centola, another OIG investigator, testified today that in prior investigations, Edmonds’ cooperation had been “spotty.” Centola did not work on the investigation into the parking control officers, but he said that in a probe into ex-city tow truck driver Reffel Gordon, who pleaded guilty to taking a bribe this week, Edmonds was frequently late producing documents. But Edmonds’ lawyer, Dominic Varrecchio, presented a series of emails from early in that investigation showing that she was working with Centola after -hours and while she was out on extended sick leave.

After reviewing those records, Varrecchio asked if they refuted his testimony that Edmonds was uncooperative.

“That’s your opinion,” Centola responded.

Emery, the parking division employee, later testified that Edmonds was an excellent supervisor. She denied that Edmonds failed to cooperate in any investigation. She said that Edmonds was on sick leave during much of the investigation in 2014 and 2015 and had asked her to retrieve the records Hernandez needed.

But since those records weren’t in the city’s possession, Emery found the contact information for Xerox. As The Lens previously reported, emails from last year appear to indicate that Hernandez knew and intended to contact the company himself.

Emery also testified that Jernigan seemed intent to get her to lie about an incident he was using to justify Edmonds’ firing.

Jernigan, she said, repeatedly asked her about an incident in 2015 in which Emery accessed another employee’s email to retrieve records needed for payroll. The employee, Delisia Crayton, was out, and Edmonds was not able to assist because she was in a meeting, Emery said. So Emery contacted technical support and requested the access.

She said Jernigan seemed to want Emery to say that retrieving the records from Crayton’s email, without Crayton’s permission, was Edmonds’ idea or that Edmonds gave her permission to do it. Emery testified that Edmonds had nothing to do with it.

The incident came up as a charge against Edmonds in Jernigan’s pre-termination letters leading up to her firing last fall. But it did not appear in her January termination notice.

“My impression was that he was trying to get me to say something that was untrue,” Emery said. “To get anything they could find, anything.”

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