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ZURIK: Kenner disaster pay reveals possible lack of oversight

ZURIK: Kenner disaster pay reveals possible lack of oversight
ZURIK: Kenner disaster pay reveals possible lack of oversight
Published: Jan. 20, 2022 at 9:55 PM CST
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KENNER, La. (WVUE) – After a lawsuit filed by FOX 8 against the City of Kenner, payroll records show the city may be breaking a policy when paying one official.

A review of payroll records shows the City of Kenner paid its Deputy Chief Administrative Officer double pay for months following Hurricane Ida.

On the day before Christmas, the City of Kenner wrote Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Chad Pitfield a check for nearly double his normal salary. The check was disaster pay from a storm that happened nearly four months earlier.

“This shows at the minimum, a lack of accountability and oversight by Kenner,” said Tulane Law Professor Joel Friedman.

For that December paycheck, Kenner paid Pitfield for his typical 70 hours of work over two weeks, then paid him for an additional 77 hours of disaster work. That disaster pay totaled $5,836.

Kenner leaders said the city is paying Pitfield, and a handful of other salaried directors, based on a 2002 policy. The policy applies to days the city was closed due to an emergency.

It says if a director works, the city pays them their normal scheduled hours, then pays them again for any actual hours worked.

For example, if a director was scheduled to work seven hours, but actually worked 15 hours, they would get paid seven hours of regular pay, and an additional 15 hours of disaster pay.

The policy states the directors only make the extra money when the city is closed due to an emergency. However, according to several communications, including a post on Facebook, Kenner’s government offices reopened on September 27.

That means the pay to Pitfield in December appears to be against Kenner’s own policy. Payroll records show Kenner paid Pitfield $49,798 in disaster pay after the city reopened.

“That’s a lot of money that the taxpayers in Kenner are paying for, and it’s not understandable to me why the city of Kenner, when the policy is very clear it only applies when the City of Kenner offices are closed,” Friedman said. “Why they would nevertheless invoke and apply that policy on days that the government is open, when the whole point of it was to give the basic employees their basic pay because they couldn’t work through no fault of their own. But they are working, so why are they applying this policy? It makes no sense, and again, it’s either negligence, or intentional wrongdoing.”

Pitfield is not the only Kenner employee who got paid disaster pay after the September reopening.

ZURIK INVESTIGATIONS

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“This policy has been in place since 2002 in Kenner, and FEMA has approved and reimbursed the city after emergency events since then including hurricanes and an ice storm,” a spokesperson for the City of Kenner told FOX 8.

However, a 2007 report by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Inspector General admonished Kenner for this same practice following Hurricane Katrina. It found that after Katrina, Kenner closed its offices and automatically paid its employees regular pay.

Employees who worked during the emergency also received pay for all additional hours worked. In essence, the city paid its employees twice for the same hours. The report said those payments should be disallowed. FEMA officials concurred with the findings.

That didn’t stop Kenner from using the policy following Hurricane Ida.

“After Katrina, Kenner asked for reimbursement from FEMA, FEMA said no, this is inappropriate, we’re not paying you. That was 16 years ago, and now they did exactly the same thing, and either they have asked FEMA or they’re going to ask FEMA for reimbursement. What do you think FEMA’s going to say? They’re going to say no, because we told you so 16 years ago,” Friedman said.

It is unclear if FEMA asked for reimbursements of the expenses outlined in the Inspector General report, or if the agency approved similar payments for future storms. The agency did not respond to our request for comment.

“This is a flagrant abuse of power,” said former Kenner Mayor Mike Yenni.

Yenni told FOX 8 he used the policy “for a short period of time during emergencies” while he was mayor. He said at most, he used it for two weeks, adding, “why someone would pay for that long of a time is beyond me.”

FOX 8 looked at other area parishes to see if they had similar policies, and none did.

  • St. Charles Parish paid its salaried employees overtime after Ida, but only for three weeks.
  • St. John the Baptist Parish paid overtime for 45 days.
  • Terrebonne Parish gave salaried employees up to five days of additional vacation time.
  • Lafourche Parish told us it paid overtime to some salaried employees. For the October 15 pay period, the parish paid employees $11,000 in overtime, about the same amount of money that Kenner paid to one employee, Pitfield.

St. Charles, St. John, Terrebonne, and Lafourche parishes all stopped their emergency policies for pay by mid-October, while Kenner continued paying. From September until the end of 2021, Pitfield made an additional $86,332.

“This is a government that’s financed by the taxpayers. The government has rules and regulations. They’re obliged to follow them. They want change them, they can go through the political process and change them, but they haven’t done that, so why are they just on an ad hoc basis making things up and doing these things? I don’t understand why they’re flouting their own policies,” Friedman said. “Again, only two explanations, negligence or intentional wrongdoing. Neither of those is a good answer.”

FOX 8 asked Kenner Mayor Ben Zahn for an interview about this story, but he refused.

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