Police O-T Soaring At Sanitation Agency

Among the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s top overtime earners: A cop who accidentally recorded himself gabbing to a co-worker about how little work he did.

A Metropolitan Water Reclamation District police officer who was caught on tape earlier this year talking about drinking and sleeping on the job made more than $100,000 in 2014 – thanks to a $27,000 salary boost for working overtime.

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Denis Lawlor’s shocking comments were recorded when he unknowingly left on his police radio while giving a tour to a new employee. He sounded off about a secret room where workers go to slack off and made multiple racist and sexist comments.

He also bragged about his six-figure payout.

"I made over $100,000 last year with overtime," said Lawlor, who is suspended without pay and facing termination. "I was third highest in the whole f------ department in salary with what we worked in overtime."

But Lawlor was not the only one racking up extra hours.

Police overtime has been surging in recent years at the $1.2 billion agency, which is charged with wastewater treatment and flood control for much of the Chicago region, the Better Government Association and FOX Chicago have learned.

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The district spent approximately $701,000 on overtime for its police officers last year, up from $557,000 in 2010, according to documents obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, and interviews.

Records indicate the district is on pace to spend even more this year, having already paid $458,000 in overtime through July.

That’s despite the fact that the number of people receiving overtime has dropped. Fifty-seven people earned overtime in 2010, compared to 51 last year, records show. So far, 48 officers have collected overtime payments this year. The police force currently has 62 members.

Altogether, overtime has cost MWRD nearly $3.4 million since 2010.

"We started taking measures to get this reduced in 2011," said MWRD Executive Director David St. Pierre.

Overnight shifts at some wastewater treatment plants have been consolidated and the agency is in the process of hiring five people to newly created "float" positions, which are intended to relieve the demand for overtime.
 
"They can fill in these holes that in the past have been filled with overtime," St. Pierre said.

Allison Fore, a spokeswoman for the agency, noted that overtime has been on the rise due to vacancies in the department. MWRD facilities are also staffed 24/7, she said.

Generally, overtime occurs when an officer works a shift for someone who is sick or on vacation – or who recently retired – and thereby makes one and a half times his or her normal rate of pay. (Police officers there make $37.85 an hour, which is $78,728 a year.)

Accumulating these extra shifts can be quite lucrative, the BGA and FOX Chicago learned.

Seven MWRD cops, including Lawlor, saw their take-home pay jump to more than six figures last year due to overtime payments, which, for those seven, averaged nearly $30,000 each.

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Twenty-nine officers made at least $10,000 last year in overtime, and the average payout among all 51 overtime earners was $13,700, records show.

The top earner was Howard Terry, who took home $37,000 last year in overtime and $151,000 in total overtime payments since 2010. Five other officers besides Terry also made more than $100,000 just in overtime since 2010.

When reached by phone, Terry said he wasn’t sure what his totals were and explained that he simply takes extra shifts when they are available.

"I just work whenever needed or whenever the situation arises," he said. "I don’t pay attention to that kind of stuff. I leave it up to the administration."

Lawlor, however, had some thoughts on the matter.

"They will always, always be trying to eliminate overtime," he explained to his colleague on the tape recording. "They’re always going to try and eliminate it, and as long as they want to run a department with 50 f------ people, there will always be overtime."

Using a racial slur, Lawlor also disputed a workplace rumor that he helped bring on the "relief" team to curb overtime costs.

"That stupid Alabama field n----- is gonna think I’m the one that’s trying to f------ bring in relief people to cut down my overtime?" he said on the tape.

Lawlor, who has been paid roughly $66,000 in overtime since he was hired by MWRD in 2011, could not be reached for comment for this article.
 
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After the Lawlor recording came to light, the other employee heard on the Lawlor recording was fired, Fore said. Five other employees, all pipefitters, were disciplined following an internal investigation and a sixth MWRD pipefitter chose to retire rather than face discipline, Fore said. Pipefitters install and repair pipes and related equipment.
 
St. Pierre said what happened with Lawlor was "an isolated incident."

Despite Lawlor’s claim that "everyone here is sleeping," St. Pierre said the police force is essential for security at the district’s seven facilities and 16 pumping stations, especially in light of increased security concerns following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

"Any damage to that infrastructure would mean significant damage to the city and to the well being of its citizens," St. Pierre said. "It’s something that people can’t appreciate unless something were to happen."
 
He brushed off questions about whether a private security force could do the job as well and more cheaply than a staffed police department.
 
Last year, MWRD cops filed a total of 10 police reports, according to the agency.
 
This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Katie Drews, who can be reached at kdrews@bettergov.org or (312) 821-9027. The BGA’s Brett Chase contributed to this report.

Photo of MWRD building by BGA. Photos of police car and Lawlor by FOX Chicago.