Editor’s Note: This is one of three stories being published today by the Ithaca Voice about the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office.
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Ithaca, N.Y. — A deputy in the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office is on administrative leave after providing false information on the timesheets that determine his pay, Sheriff Ken Lansing said on Monday.
Deputy Shane Spencer, who ran the department’s canine unit, is now under investigation by the New York Attorney General’s Office, according to Lansing.
In an interview on Monday, Lansing said that Spencer would ask for a “personal day,” but then fill out his timesheet to indicate he had taken a holiday.
This allowed him to take more vacation time than was allowed, and the manipulation went on for years before it was discovered by the department, Lansing said.
“Is that breaking a law? Is that forgery? Not really … But it’s being dishonest and manipulating the system so you can have more days off,” Lansing said in the interview. “Law-wise, is that criminal? Probably not.”
However, confidential sheriff’s office records obtained by the Ithaca Voice appear to tell another story, detailing additional charges against Spencer than the ones mentioned by Lansing.
Spencer was accused of four misconduct charges in a “Notice of Discipline” filed against him by the sheriff’s office on Feb. 25, 2014.
The document accuses Spencer not only of turning personal days into holidays, but also of billing the county for days he took off. It says Spencer provided misinformation about approximately 30 days of work dating back to as early as Nov. 1, 2010.
It’s unclear if the arbitrator found Spencer to have committed any of the misconduct charges. The disciplinary proceedings of law enforcement personnel are confidential under law, according to County Attorney Jonathan Wood.
Copied on the document were Wood, the county attorney; Anita Fitzpatrick, director of county personnel; and Pete Walker, president of the Tompkins County Deputy Sheriff’s Association.
Asked on Tuesday about the severity of Spencer’s actions, Lansing said crimes had to be proved in a court of law and that he doesn’t have the authority to determine someone’s guilt.
“From the information we had, it appeared that way (to be a crime). But you have to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt; that’s not my call as a police officer or as a sheriff, and that’s what I struggled with,” Lansing said. “Sure, it doesn’t look good.”
“… His actions could constitute a crime. It’s a possibility. We didn’t know if we had enough evidence, which is why we didn’t charge him and we handed it off to the county attorney.”
In his interview on Monday, Lansing said that — once the impropriety was discovered — he spoke to several other top law enforcement officials in the state to determine the best course of action.
The case was eventually turned over to the county administrator, who with the district attorney then brought in the Office of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, Lansing said.
The attorney general’s investigation was confirmed by two anonymous sources within the Tompkins County government who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak about the matter publicly.
Tompkins District Attorney Gwen Wilkinson said she could neither confirm nor deny the attorney general’s investigation.
A spokesperson for the attorney general also declined to comment.
1 — Deputy continues to draw salary
Records obtained by the Ithaca Voice state that the county was investigating Spencer’s time cards as early as October 2013.
Since then, Spencer has earned at least $118,000 in taxpayer money.
Spencer, who remains on administrative leave, has been paid $57,533 in 2015 in addition to the $60,788 he was paid in 2014, open records show. (Spencer was also paid $77,000 in 2013, according to SeeThroughNY.net.)
“It’s out of the control of the county and me,” Sheriff Lansing said of Spencer’s continuing pay. “It’s built into their contract.”
The attorney general’s investigation is not the reason Spencer has not returned to work, Lansing said. Lansing said he thought Spencer was suspended from work about 16 months ago.
“He’s not ready to come back to work,” Lansing said.
“I don’t know everything going through (Spencer’s) mind about returning; he doesn’t want to come back right now.”
Spencer did not return a request for comment.
2 — What’s the extent of AG’s investigation?
Lansing said he wasn’t sure if the attorney general office’s probe was limited to allegations related to Spencer or if it extends to other parts of the sheriff’s department.
“I think they’re still looking at what (Spencer) was charged with when the arbitration went through — and what else they’ve dug into from that, I don’t know,” Lansing said.
Lansing said he has not been personally interviewed by anyone with the attorney general’s office. He said, however, that four other members of the sheriff’s department have been interviewed by investigators with the attorney general’s office.
“Our people, it’s hard for them,” Lansing said about the AG’s investigation.
“(The AG’s office) told them not to say nothing, but I’m the damn boss. But I respect that, so I don’t ask. They go and they tell me they’re going to something and I say, ‘Tell the truth, do whatever it is you have to do.’”
Sheriff Lansing said that while other deputies may have made the occasional mistake on their timesheets, he was not aware of anyone — outside of Spencer — who had been officially investigated for doing so.
Wilkinson, the district attorney, also said she was not aware of any other investigations into crimes or wrongdoing involving timesheets at the sheriff’s office.
3 — New controls over timesheets
Sometimes, deputies who work in specialized units are under less supervision than other members of the force, Lansing said.
“The canine (unit) had been well established here by the time I took over — it needed to be looked at again. I slowly was looking at it, and talking to Shane,” Lansing said.
Lansing compared the lack of supervision for officers of the canine unit to officers who work with the DARE program.
“If chiefs and sheriffs didn’t grab their DARE Officers and say, ‘Hey, you come to the office, you don’t go to the school every day,’” then some would go to the school instead, Lansing said.
“Some of these specialized units … If you were an administrator and didn’t have somebody helping you out and making sure they’re accountable, they’re going to go a little rogue.”
Lansing said new procedures have since been implemented to ensure that there aren’t further manipulations of the timesheets.
“The sergeants now will take them before any of us get to them and will check the switch and shifts to the best of their ability,” Lansing said. “We have quite a check and balance thing here that was never here before.”
4 — Lansing’s friendship with Spencer
Lansing said that he had been accused by some of helping Spencer because the two are friends, but that this was untrue.
“Everybody wanted to make him out to be my friend and my buddy. … But I wouldn’t know how to get to his house right now. I know where he used to live. I know he has a beautiful new home; I don’t know how to go there. I’ve never been there … I don’t go to parties with him.We hunted together every fall, in another state. I think I hunted once with him in this area,” Lansing said.
“… I think some people think I would step out of line and help somebody but I would never do that … I would never do anything dishonest or that wasn’t right.”
Lansing added that he becomes something of a father-figure for many of the deputies in the department.
“A lot of people will tell you this: I almost become their father. I’m not saying this is necessarily the case with Shane (Spencer), but a lot of people call me ‘Dad.’ A lot of people, all right, who are not blood at all but I know them,” Lansing said.
“So it’s hard. It’s how I get with a lot of people. It was hard for me because I believe there were times where he did some of the stuff.”
Lansing said it was difficult for him to turn the case over to the independent agencies now investigating it.
“I struggled with it — where do you go with this? You really don’t want to investigate your own people. We did an initial investigation, obviously … Then you get to the point of, where do we go now?,” Lansing said.
“You don’t like to turn your dirty laundry over to someone else … In cases like this, you have to because we’re under a microscope even when we’re not doing anything wrong.”
He also said he felt personally hurt by Spencer’s alleged misconduct.
“I cried myself to sleep sometimes out of disappointment: ‘Why the F did you do that?,’” Lansing said about Spencer.
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