Ore. prison workers, told to stay home, cash paychecks for months while awaiting orders

Data shows the agency last year spent $580,891 paying 53 employees to stay home for varying durations

By Les Zaitz
The Oregonian

PORTLAND, Ore. — Jeremy J. Veelle has been paid by the state for nearly two years to stay home and wait for the phone to ring.

He is a maintenance worker at the state prison in Wilsonville, but hasn't been to his job site since March 2012.

Veelle is, in the parlance of the Oregon Department of Corrections, "duty stationed at home" until the agency decides his fate. Inmates at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility say he sexually abused them, which he denies.

As Corrections Department executives ponder the case, Veelle clocks in at 7 a.m. each week day and can't leave his Mulino home until his shift is over at 4:30 p.m. He has no work to do. He draws his regular pay, gets paid holidays and accrues vacation time. He has been awarded four pay raises totaling $305 a month, with a fifth scheduled for March 1.

So far, taxpayers have shelled out $79,700 to Veelle.

The Corrections Department's use of administrative leave popped into view last month. The agency confirmed that the superintendent of the state prison in Pendleton, Rick Coursey, had been on leave since November and recently was demoted and reassigned.

Veelle and Coursey aren't the only Corrections Department employees to while away time at home on full salary, according to an investigation by The Oregonian.

Data provided to The Oregonian show the agency last year spent $580,891 paying 53 employees to stay home for varying durations. The agency employs 4,267.

Other large agencies also use administrative leave, but not to that extent.

The Human Services Department had 80 of its 8,000 employees on administrative leave last year at a cost of $393,177. The state Transportation Department reported a cost of $62,151 to put 23 of its 4,557 employees on leave last year.

The prison agency's leave is costly in part because it can stretch on for months, as the Veelle case demonstrates. Agency officials say they have little choice because employees under suspicion can't be left in their jobs because of the risk.

"We take our responsibility to maintain a safe and healthy environment for both staff and inmates in our facilities seriously and do everything in our power to mitigate any risk," Colette Peters, Corrections Department director, said via email.

Christine Popoff, Corrections Department assistant director for human resources, said executives send employees home only if their risk can't be managed in another manner, such as assignment to a different job.

"With DOC, because of the nature of the work and access, that makes it difficult to give work to do at home," Popoff said. "More than likely, they probably are not doing any work."

Union officials agree risk has to be minimized, but they say the agency is "overzealous" in posting a worker at home.

"We have some concerns about the number of people that are duty stationed at home but more concerns about the frequently apparently arbitrary reasons for sending people home," said Don Loving, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 75, one of two unions representing corrections workers.

Peters didn't address written question about whether she has ever directed an analysis of the costs of administrative leave. The agency is facing a budget shortfall in the current biennium and is seeking $90 million in emergency funding during the February legislative session.

"Our executive team reviews every case monthly to ensure the investigations are moving," Peters said via email. "We do not have individuals duty stationed at home longer than need be."

Employees are assigned to home duty when they fall under suspicion for criminal conduct, violating agency practices, or for internal personnel reviews.

When police are involved, the Corrections Department typically doesn't act until charges are filed or the case is closed. For a variety of reasons, an administrative investigation doesn't start until the police are done, Popoff said, adding to the time an employee is paid to stay home.

Loving said the process needs to be shorter.

"No matter who does the investigation, they just take too long," Loving said. "We want them to be thorough but quick. It doesn't do the employee any good, it doesn't do the agency any good, and it doesn't do the taxpayer any good for these things to stretch out."

Veelle's case illustrates that issue.

Records released by the Oregon State Police show that an inmate in December 2011 told detectives of sexual conduct with Veelle in the maintenance shops at the Wilsonville prison. The shops had been the venue for abuse of inmates for years by maintenance workers.

In March 2012, Veelle was arrested for official misconduct. Officials assigned him to home duty. He stayed there when prosecutors decided later that month there wasn't a case to prosecute. He stayed there when State Police closed their case in August 2012, unable to secure the evidence prosecutors said they needed.

Meantime, three inmates sued Veelle in Marion County Circuit Court, seeking payment from him and the Corrections Department.

Because Veelle remains a state employee, taxpayers are picking up the cost of defending the case even while the internal investigation drags on. So far, the state has paid $15,000 to Veelle's state-hired attorney.

Veelle, reached at home, wouldn't comment on his circumstances, under orders from both his attorney and Corrections Department officials to stay quiet.

Corrections officials also declined to explain Veelle's status. They refused to say whether Coffee Creek hired a replacement for Veelle at additional expense, even though the agency posted a job announcement a year ago.

The agency remained equally mum regarding the circumstances of Renee Larsen, an office specialist at Columbia River Correctional Institution. She has been stationed at home since August 2012 for reasons the agency won't disclose because of an active investigation. She has been paid $49,392 while on home duty.

In some instances, medical professionals are stationed at home after subpar performance.

Hope Thomas, a nurse at Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario, was put on leave in August 2011, returned to duty in May 2012, and went back on administrative leave a month later after making a medication error.

"She was returned on condition of a supervision plan," said Betty Bernt, Corrections Department communications manager. "The plan was not successful."

In October 2012, the state Nursing Board put Thomas on probation for two years for "failing to take action to preserve client safety, incomplete recordkeeping and failing to conform to the essential standards of acceptable and prevailing nursing practice."

She remained on paid leave until she was dismissed the following February. She drew $73,568 in state pay while stationed at home.

Mary Harrell, a dentist at Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in Pendleton, was stationed at home for five months last year, drawing $49,545 while she was under investigation by the state Board of Dentistry. The board reprimanded her last September after documenting eight instances of unacceptable care of inmates dating back to 2009. In one case, care was so botched the inmate had to be rushed to a nearby hospital emergency room. Harrell resigned a month after the board's action.

In some cases, employees return to work before internal investigations are complete, as happened with Jacy Gamble, chief investigator in the inspector general's office at the Corrections Department.

Gamble was stationed at home in October 2012, after earlier that year being named the Director's Office "Manager of the Year." Gamble was at home for five months at a cost of $31,156 before returning to office duty with her pay and title intact.

She remains under investigation.

"As this case is active, we are unable to share information," Bernt said in an email.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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