A payroll controversy at the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office that is more than a decade old has resurfaced with the candidacy of a former officer who was a central figure in the issue.
During a political forum earlier this month, sheriff’s hopeful Lauren McDonald made reference to fellow Republican candidate Duane Piper’s involvement in a past sheriff’s policy that led employees in acting positions to add 11 hours to their timesheets each pay period.
The two men are challenging incumbent Sheriff Ted Paxton for the post in the July 31 primary.
McDonald questioned Piper, noting that in 1999 and 2000, he followed the direction of his supervisors to add the hours.
“If you’re a leader, and somebody says to do something that’s not right — to add 11 hours because you can or you were told to — you shouldn’t have done it,” McDonald said. “And now you want to lead the sheriff’s department? I’ve never stolen one red penny from this county, and I never will.”
Piper said afterward that he’s never stolen anything nor been accused of stealing in his life.
The issue to which McDonald referred was the root of a months-long investigation 12 years ago into a practice of “acting pay” that existed within the sheriff’s office.
The probe resulted from a civil service board hearing in 2000, which Piper had requested in response to an unrelated disciplinary matter.
“The hearing wasn’t about that,” Piper said last week. “It came up in the hearing, and I was still never accused of doing anything improper. That’s because I didn’t.”
In May 2000, several employees of the sheriff’s office testified during a civil service board hearing that they received pay for hours they hadn’t worked.
The hearing came about after Piper, a sergeant at the time, appealed what he said was disciplinary action taken against him for not attending a mandatory Veterans Day parade in November 1999.
He said that as a result he had been moved from the uniformed patrol division to the detention center and also lost his title of “acting lieutenant,” reverting to the rank of sergeant. He had held the “acting” title for nearly a year, from December 1998 to November 1999.
Michael Daniel, counsel for the sheriff’s office, said Piper had not suffered a demotion or a loss in compensation, which are two grounds for appeal.
That brought the 11-hour issue to the forefront.
The “acting” part of his title, as Piper testified at his hearing in 2000, entitled him to receive 11 additional hours on his timesheet each 28-day pay period.
A command directive issued in December 1998, signed by Piper and then-Sheriff Danny Hendrix, stated that as an “acting lieutenant,” he would assume the duties of lieutenant, but not the associated pay, and compete with others for a future promotion.
According to a tape of the hearing, which the Forsyth County News obtained through an open records request, Piper said the extra hours were granted by a policy in February 1999 to all acting supervisors.
“Because of the commissioners’ refusal to grant the positions that the department needed to work properly, there was a quite a large number of acting positions,” Piper said at the hearing. “As a result, we were granted 11 hours a month extra pay for being an acting position.”
On his timesheets, Piper said he would typically add 11 hours of regular pay, not overtime, for one day he didn’t actually work during the 28-day pay period. He did so at the direction of his supervisors.
“I questioned [a captain] whether we were legally allowed to do that,” he said. “I was told the sheriff can do that if he wants to. He can compensate you for being in an acting position. I took that at face value. My superiors are telling me I’m allowed to do this, so I’m going to do it.”
Ultimately, the civil service board reversed the office’s “inconsistent” disciplinary action that moved Piper from the patrol division to the detention center, but it didn’t overturn the revocation of his “acting” title, according to the May 17, 2000, decision.
The three-member panel also addressed the issue of “acting pay” as discussed in the hearing, stating in its decision that there was “undisputed evidence” that the sheriff created the program to reward those who took acting supervisory positions after county commissioners would not fund positions for true promotions.
However, the board heard two versions of how those 11 hours were to be administered.
“One version,” the decision stated, “was that acting supervisors would be allowed to work an additional 11 hours per monthly pay period … Another version was that acting supervisors could write down and be paid for an additional 11 hours per monthly pay period that they never actually worked.
“There was substantial evidence that the later version was what in fact occurred and that the former version was at least the intent of the chief deputy.”
The board, citing it had no jurisdiction over the matter, requested an independent investigation.
According to Forsyth County News reports from 2000, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took up the case at the prompting of the District Attorney and County Commission.
In April 2001, a grand jury cleared the former sheriff and chief deputy by not indicting them of any criminal wrongdoing in association with the payroll computation.
Paxton took office in January of that year.
Piper has 25 years' experience in law enforcement, including 16 with the local sheriff's office, from which he retired last fall. He said Friday he was not investigated by the GBI.
“I was never accused, and I was never even investigated, nothing,” he said. “Some of the testimony that the sheriff’s office provided [during my civil service hearing] ended up getting the [then] sheriff investigated.”