Waukesha's Department of Public Works target of theft investigation

Published on: 7/30/2013

With a hearing already looming on the complaint against Waukesha Fire Chief Jesse Alba seeking his resignation, a Police and Fire commissioner who could decide his fate is also under fire in a separate case.

City Administrator Ed Henschel said Mayor Jeff Scrima has asked for PFC member Dan Owens to resign after an internal investigation and audit revealed his connection, along with two former Department of Public Works employees, in the alleged theft of scrap metal from the city.

The alleged theft was reported to the Human Resources Department by a new supervisor after he became aware of the practice, Henschel said.

"The mayor also requested his resignation when the investigation first started back in April (after the employees were put on paid administrative leave in March)," Henschel said.

Henschel said to remove someone from a commission a "just-cause" complaint must be filed and sent to HR for review before the Common Council takes action.

The council's decision could come as early as its Aug. 8 meeting, Henschel said.

If Owens — whose position on the PFC was separate from his job with the DPW — is removed from his post at that time and is before Alba's hearing regarding alleged city violations, the commission will be down one member.

Police and Fire Commission Chairwoman Cheryl Gemignani did not return a call for comment on Alba's or Owens' investigation.

"We would have handled (the Owens investigation) in the same manner, regardless of the Alba incident," Henschel said. "Under the circumstances, it just so happens the timing of these are concurrent with each other."

The timing of it all, however, makes Owens' attorney, Dan Fay, question motives.

"I'm a lawyer and I understand circumstantial evidence," Fay said. "But the timing of it makes me really wonder. I read that there's a complaint against the fire chief and now my client is asked to resign. I love the threat. Gee, that's a hell of a way to run a government.

"My job as an attorney is to protect people from bullies and we can fight back and air the city's dirty laundry."

The Waukesha County Sheriff's Department has referred charges to the District Attorney's office against three former city DPW employees for theft. The DA's investigation is ongoing.

District Attorney Brad Schimel said two of the suspects have asserted through their attorneys that others are involved.

However, Schimel said he doesn't have any information beyond the claims of the three suspects to confirm other employees' involvement. Schimel added many individuals at the DPW were interviewed.

"There's not support at this point for the claims by the three the activities were more widespread within DPW nor that the supervisors sanctioned the activities," Schimel said.

Henschel said the city "can't account for money" missing. While Schimel said he could not confirm the value of the materials, Henschel said the audit showed that at least $39,600 worth of materials had been stolen.

"We have documents that shows the money was not turned into the city dating back at least to 2009, probably before that," Henschel said.

And regarding the lost money, Henschel added, "it's likely more than that. The money never showed up. We don't know where it went."

Henschel added that if the DA prosecutes the three suspects, he said the city would ask for restitution.

Owens' attorney disputes the city's claim.

"I don't know how they're out $40,000 when all the money was brought back to them," Fay said. "(Dan) understands why he's being targeted and that's for telling the truth. He told the truth long before the investigation started. Every single one of these deliveries occurred in a city truck on city time."

Fay said, after talking with retired DPW employees, it's common for employees, while under orders, to go to a scrap yard and take items to Waukesha Iron and Metal, turn it in for cash or checks payable and bring it back to the foreman.

"It's just like they were supposed to do," Fay said.

When asked if this was common practice of the DPW, Henschel refrained from comment.

"I'm reluctant to comment on that, but that's the statement of the three DPW employees," Henschel said.

In his work on the case Schimel said, "The evidence appears to demonstrate that there has been a long-term problem with the proceeds from scrap metals being diverted by DPW employees.

"The further back we look, the less clear the recollection of witnesses and the more gaps there are in the physical records, so it is difficult to say when the activities of concern may have commenced."

Waukesha NOW has filed an open records request for details on the investigation.