Hearings and trial dates for two former city of Monroe employees accused of public payroll fraud have been reset more than 30 times since 2013, court records show.
Former City Engineer Sinyale Morrison and city engineering employee, Ricardo Nance, are scheduled to face trial in August, though Morrison’s attorney indicated the trial could get pushed back to October.
In 2012, a Ouachita Parish grand jury indicted Morrison and Nance on public payroll fraud charges after a nearly two-year investigation by the state Legislative Auditor’s office and Louisiana State Police. The Fourth Judicial District Attorney’s office later amended the indictment to add one count of conspiracy to commit payroll fraud.
Part of the delays have stemmed from Morrison’s attorneys. Her current attorney, state Sen. Katrina Jackson, of Monroe, has cited conflicts between court dates and her legislative duties as the reason for asking the court to continue the case. Other delays resulted from the deaths of Morrison’s previous two attorneys, Johnny Carl Parkerson and Charles Kincade.
During a Jan. 27 hearing before Fourth Judicial District Court Judge Scott Leehy, Jackson and the prosecutor agreed to reset the trial — scheduled to begin that day — to Aug. 17. If she could not meet the August date, the trial’s back-up date would be Oct. 26, Jackson said.
Additional information from the city of Monroe needed to be disclosed through discovery, according to Assistant Attorney General Madeleine Slaughter, of Monroe. A handwriting exemplar, or forensic analysis of handwriting evidence, also would be added to the case, according to Slaughter.
“There’s still some discovery outstanding,” Slaughter said. “There’s voluminous discovery in the case.”
Slaughter is handling the prosecution of Morrison and Nance on behalf of Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office. The Attorney General’s office stepped in as an ad hoc district attorney in 2017 after The Ouachita Citizen questioned Fourth Judicial District Attorney Steve Tew about his office’s involvement in the case. Tew’s wife, Nanci Summersgill, who was the city’s lead attorney at the time of Morrison investigation, spoke favorably of Morrison and was identified as a witness during the investigation.
The maximum penalty for payroll fraud is two years in prison while the crime of conspiracy to commit payroll fraud carries a sentence of up to one year in prison.
time sheet findings
Court records show the State Police received a complaint in November 2011 from then-District Attorney Jerry Jones’ office about possible payroll fraud and malfeasance in office. The State Police investigative case report was completed and submitted to the district attorney on Aug. 1, 2012. The Legislative Auditor’s office also interviewed several city employees, reviewed time sheet records and issued an investigative audit report in December 2011.
Morrison’s time sheet records showed she used 40 hours of leave that was not deducted from her leave balance, according to the Legislative Auditor.
“When questioned about the difference, Ms. Morrison stated that the discrepancies were due to mistakes in the payroll records, and that on occasion, she did not take leave even though she had an approved leave slip,” stated the Legislative Auditor’s report. “Ms. Morrison further said that she does not keep time sheets; therefore, she could not provide any documentation to support her statement. Further examination of her payroll records shows Ms. Morrison also took 24 hours of leave without an approved leave slip.”
In her response to the Legislative Auditor’s findings, Morrison claimed the report’s accusations were “vague.”
“It is full of outright misrepresentation of the facts,” stated Morrison’s letter. “There are numerous misinterpretations of the facts. There are quotations of co-employees of the city, which are not accurate quotations.”
25 extra OT hours
The investigation of Morrison and Nance stemmed from the work by the city’s former human resources director, Mike Rhymes, who looked into allegations that Morrison promoted Nance from the city’s traffic division to a position in the engineering division he was not qualified to hold and was paid overtime for hundreds of hours regardless of whether he worked 40 hours a week or not.
Morrison hired Nance as a survey party chief from May 2009 to August 2011 at a salary of $53,814, according to the Legislative Auditor’s report.
“Mr. Nance received $5,743 for 310 hours of overtime while employed in the Traffic Division and Civil Division of the Engineering Department,” stated the Legislative Auditor’s report. “Ms. Morrison determined a fixed number of overtime hours to pay Mr. Nance each pay period; however, Ms. Morrison did not require Mr. Nance to submit any documentation to validate the number of overtime hours he worked.”
Records attached to the State Police investigative case report contained multiple memos, emails, letters and handwritten notes shedding further light on the allegations against Morrison and Nance.
In a July 20, 2010 memo titled “Overtime Disbursement,” Morrison told Nance he would be paid 25 hours per pay period in overtime hours, according to documents in the State Police report.
“These hours will suffice for your overtime help with the front desk and call-outs for Civil and Traffic Engineer,” stated Morrison’s “Overtime Disbursement” note. “Additional hours shall be given for holidays and excessive workloads.”
In other memos, Morrison described the allotment of 25 hours of overtime pay each pay period as standard practice in her department.
In a July 20, 2010 memo by Morrison concerning overtime disbursement, she wrote, “In accordance with the Mayor’s 12-Step Fiscal Year Plan that was re-issued on April 20, 2010, I am re-implementing the policy of a set allotment of overtime hours allowed in a pay period.”
“Beginning July 22, 2010, all non-supervisory employees shall receive twenty-five (25) hours per pay period,” stated Morrison’s memo. “Supervisors called out, as a last resort, shall receive no more than ten (10) hours per period of the call out.”
Morrison also defended the practice of allotting overtime hours as a cost-cutting measure in a Dec. 10, 2010 email to David Barnes, who at the time was the city’s director of administration.
“The policy of giving a set amount of hours for overtime has been going on prior to my employment at the City,” stated Morrison’s email. “Mr. Rhymes and Mrs. Nanci Summersgill were well aware of my procedure of giving the set amount of hours. I have also made several public statements about the way I handled overtime. I have mentioned it more than once in our weekly Department Head meetings, suggesting it to other Department Heads, as a way to curtail their budget. Engineering has never been over budget in the time I’ve been in charge.”
In contrast to Morrison’s claims, a Nov. 1, 1996 memo from former Mayor Abe Pierce III required that all non-civil service departments were required to document all information for overtime hours.
In December 2010, Morrison was ordered to discontinue her practice of allowing employees to claim a set allotment over overtime hours for each pay period.
The State Police report stated Summersgill, the former city attorney, could testify that she advised Morrison it was “...ok for Nance to work overtime on contracted projects, ok to give employees 25 extra OT pay, and advising Morrison receiving parties from Denmon Engineering was unethical.”
Denmon Engineering is a Monroe engineering firm and one of Mayo’s regular campaign contributors.
One of the parties mentioned in the State Police report was the annual Mardi Gras party in Washington, D.C. which coincides each year with the Monroe Chamber of Commerce’s annual lobbying trip to Washington. City officials often accompany Chamber of Commerce officials. In a March 29, 2012 letter to State Police, Summersgill said she was not aware that Denmon Engineering paid for Morrison to attend the Mardi Gras party in Washington.
“Contrary to that rumor, Denmon Engineering did not pay for Ms. Morrison to go to Washington,” stated Summersgill.
Summersgill defended Morrison by noting that Barnes had signed Morrison’s leave slip for the Washington trip and that Morrison had paid for her own ticket.
Summersgill also responded to State Police investigators’ questions about a “fund” possibly set up by Morrison, who apparently asked local private engineers to contribute and help defray the costs of hosting parties.
“I explained that I was aware that the engineers had helped with events because I had personally been to one,” stated Summersgill’s March 29, 2012 letter. “Please know that most engineering companies in Monroe have paid such funds. At the particular Christmas party I attended at a local restaurant, employees from Denmon Engineering were also present. At that time, that was not a violation of the state ethics laws. I am attaching a document dated January 2008 and have highlighted the area where certainly we believe at that time accepting donations for these types of things were not ethical violations. I particularly remember that if the person paying for the event was present, there was not a violation. The law changed and I have attached an update dated November 2010 at the bottom for your further review. Engineering no longer accepts these donations.”
Former HR director
From 2009 to 2011, Rhymes, the former human resources director, claimed he faced challenges while trying to investigate the allegations against Morrison and Nance.
For example, in a March 30, 2009 memo to Barnes, the former director of administration, Rhymes suggested Mayor Jamie Mayo had discriminated against him because of race and reprimanded him. Rhymes is white while Mayo and Morrison are black.
“Recently, Mayor Mayo called me to his office and reprimanded me for allegations contained within (a newspaper article),” began Rhymes’ March 30, 2009 memo. “These allegations were false but I do not believe the Mayor gave me a fair hearing. I received no notice of what the meeting was about and was not given an opportunity to formulate a response. Since it is well-known that African-American employees are granted free access to the Mayor and Caucasians find it difficult to obtain an audience, I must conclude that I am being discriminated against because of my race. I formally object to same as such is in violation of state and federal law.”
Rhymes later asked Barnes to accompany him during any future disciplinary meetings with Mayo.
In a Dec. 29, 2010 email to Summersgill, Mayo defended his approach with Rhymes.
“Per our conversation in my office on Monday, December 27, 2010, I wanted to respond to Mike Rhymes’ email that was sent to you and others concerning issues surrounding the overtime disagreement in the Engineering Department,” stated Mayo’s memo. “He indicated among other things that he felt discriminated against because ‘the Mayor’ has declined to hear his side of the issue and it has depressed him greatly because of the respect and admiration he has always felt for ‘him,’ even when he thought ‘the Mayor’ was being ill advised and taking discriminatory acts against people in protected classes.”
“The above statement is totally false because I have never denied Mike Rhymes the opportunity to talk to me about the payroll issue,” Mayo added.
In a Feb. 14, 2011 memo to Barnes, Rhymes asked for “personal protection” in light of threats Nance allegedly made at the time when Rhymes was investigating the payroll matter.
“As you know, my office is completely unprotected, despite the fact that Human Resources is the most logical target of disgruntled or emotionally disturbed employees and I would reiterate my request that we be moved to a secure location,” stated Rhymes’ memo. “For historical and obvious reasons, I suggest an agency not associated with the City of Monroe to provide security.”
In a Feb. 16, 2011 memo to Barnes, Rhymes explained he feared both Nance and Mayo.
“David said someone had asked him why I was no longer parking in my assigned spot and I reiterated to him that I am fearful for my personal safety,” stated Rhymes’ memo. “This is because of Ricardo’s threats of last week and the Mayor’s family history of schizophrenia. The mayor has been accused of physically assaulting others in the past, including George Newman, and his well-known inability to forget any sort of issue with others is extremely worrisome.”
In the same memo, Rhymes suggested Morrison had close ties with Mayo, close enough to help sway Mayo’s opinion when it came time to select a new chief of police. Rhymes’ memo refers to Quentin Holmes, who Mayo appointed as the city’s chief of police in 2011.
“David (Barnes) was of the opinion that Quentin was buttering up Sinyale to make sure he becomes Chief,” stated Rhymes’ memo.
City employee interviews
shed light on allegations
In a Nov. 10, 2010 interview between Rhymes and then-engineering supervisor Clovis Hailey, Hailey said he had sometimes seen Nance go to the city’s engineering office and fill in for a secretary during working hours. The interview transcript was included in the State Police case report.
“Just different times,” Hailey said. “It’s usually at lunch and sometimes. It’s usually at lunch and just sporadically after that. I don’t go up there much.”
“Have you ever seen him work after 3:30 in the afternoon?” Rhymes said.
“No, sir,” Hailey said.
Later, Rhymes asked Hailey about Nance’s overtime work.
“Let’s see, we have Ricardo Nance here with 56 hours regular and it shows 25 hours of overtime,” Rhymes said.
“Hmm,” Hailey said.
“Do you believe Mr. Nance worked 25 hours of overtime?”
“No. In my honest opinion, I don’t think Mr. Nance has ever worked a full day the whole time he’s been there. Well, let me rephrase that — about 30 percent of the time, he worked a full day but other than that, he just leaves early. And we’ll ask him why and he’ll say it’s not (any) of our damn business.”
“Okay. And have you reported this to Ms. Morrison?”
“I was told by Ms. Morrison after we had this incident — what this — whatever it was — somebody had said something about Ricardo doing something to the whole building down there and I got called into the office and questioned by a police officer and when that police officer left, Ms. Morrison told me to my face that I do not trust you and to me that just meant what good would it do for me to say anything to her. If she tells me I don’t trust anything you say, why would I say anything to her?”
Later, Hailey claimed he and city engineering employee Paul Oxley often asked Nance to go work because Nance was sitting in Morrison’s office.
“Another thing that perturbed Paul is he would come back say he’s sitting in Sinyale’s office, I can’t keep going up there and asking him to come to work,” Hailey said. “He would sit in Sinyale’s office for hours and hours on end while our party chief was out working. He would walk in and ask Ricardo, come on let’s go to work...”
“Was the secretarial staff there?” Rhymes said.
“Yes, the secretarial staff was there, Sinyale was there,” Hailey said.
“Do you have any idea why Mr. Nance was there?” Rhymes said.
“No, I don’t have a clue,” Hailey said. “He spent most of his time up there, that’s why I stayed away from him.”
Hailey ultimately took early retirement and left the department, according to city documents.
In a transcript of an undated interview with Oxley, Rhymes was told that nobody in the department claimed overtime.
“This has never happened to any of us,” Oxley said. “None of us have ever claimed overtime down there.”
In a Nov. 15, 2010 memo to Mayo, Morrison claimed Rhymes was harassing her and discriminating against her by questioning other city engineering employees about herself and Nance.
“He claims that payroll fraud is being committed in the Engineering Department, and stated that an Engineering Supervisor made the complaint, however all of my Supervisors say they did not,” stated Morrison’s Nov. 15, 2010 memo. “It appears that Mr. Hailey, Mr. Oxley, along with Mr. Rhymes have put together false documents and made false claims in an effort to sabotage my department, cause me to look bad, and possibly lose my job. I trust that you will let me know how the investigation is proceeding and that you will arrange to hold a Grievance Hearing as soon as possible.”
In response to Morrison’s grievance memo, Mayo noted the director of administration, Barnes, had authorized Rhymes to conduct an investigation of payroll records in the engineering department. Mayo claimed he was unable to find any evidence of “payroll irregularities.”
“As you know I have been unable to find any payroll irregularities and am closing my inquiry into that matter,” stated Mayo’s Feb. 14, 2011 memo. “I find this matter was mishandled from the beginning and I do not agree with the manner it was carried out. I deeply regret the ‘leaks’ to the media from unknown sources which appear to be persons from within the City. These leaks were unnecessary and biased. I found the information I obtained from employees was not reliable in most instances as they had ‘retracted,’ ‘qualified,’ and ‘embellished’ previous statements.”