Emails: PPA officials altered records after Right-to-Know request

Clarena Tolson, the Parking Authority interim director, speaks to Richard Dickson, a first deputy executive director at the agency, during a recent board meeting.

Just days after the Inquirer and Daily News formally requested an accounting of compensatory time at the Philadelphia Parking Authority, two top executives asked the agency to eliminate such hours they were owed, according to internal PPA emails.

Deputy executive directors Richard Dickson and Dennis Weldon sent emails to the payroll department to that effect Jan. 17 — the same day the authority responded to the newspapers' request by falsely stating it had no comp-time records for senior staffers. Weldon, who also serves as PPA general counsel, was copied on that response.

Prior to the Right-to-Know request, the pair had accumulated hundreds of hours of comp time. Legal experts familiar with the Right-to-Know Law say those figures should have been acknowledged by the PPA.

The PPA recently released the emails as a result of a subsequent Right-to-Know request by the newspapers.

The papers had initially sought the comp-time information Jan. 13, after the agency reported that former executive director Vincent Fenerty, ousted in September after a sexual-harassment scandal, had collected $227,000 in comp time and other paid leave, as well as 15 years of free health care.

After first stating it had no comp-time records, the agency on Jan. 20 handed over documents showing that more than a dozen PPA employees earning six-figure salaries had accumulated large amounts of comp time, which they can convert to cash — at their highest pay rate — when they leave the agency.

That balance sheet showed that Dickson and Weldon had no comp time.

A subsequent request for communications on the subject of comp time, however, made it evident that the authority had altered its records for Dickson and Weldon after the newspapers' initial request, a possible violation of the Right-to-Know Law.

Among the recently released emails was one that Dickson wrote to Mike Gallen, the PPA's payroll director, on Jan. 17: “Please reduce my comp time balance to zero.”

Weldon also contacted Gallen on Jan. 17, asking that his comp-time amount be reduced to zero.

Combined, Dickson and Weldon had accumulated nearly 500 hours of comp time as of March 2016 and had about 361 hours left as of November 2016, PPA records show. Dickson is paid $208,166 a year and Weldon, $196,384.

PPA officials say the timing of the emails from Dickson and Weldon was coincidental to the newspapers' Right-to-Know request.

“It kind of backfired on us,” said Weldon, who conceded that the timing could appear suspicious.

Comp time is generally provided to lesser-compensated hourly employees in lieu of overtime pay. At the PPA, however, top officials with management-level responsibilities also took advantage of the perk to create nest eggs that grow in value as their pay rate rises.

Dickson wrote in an email last month to senior staff that Fenerty had quietly doubled the 240-hour carryover cap and had accumulated more than 600 hours of comp time himself. Fenerty resigned from his $223,000-a-year post a day before the PPA planned to terminate him.

Erik Arneson, executive director of Pennsylvania's Office of Open Records, said the state Right-to-Know Law doesn’t address situations of an agency's destroying or modifying requested records. But, he said, the law allows courts to fine agencies that deny access to records in bad faith.

“In my view, nothing would fit that criteria better than destroying a record, and modifying a record – depending on the actual changes – could certainly fit it as well,” Arneson said.

Craig Staudenmaier, a Harrisburg-based attorney who specializes in media law, said altering records is likely a violation of the Right-to-Know Law. But the law’s enforcement provisions are weak, he said.

“If they’re denying you the correct record and altering a record, in and of itself that’s an act of bad faith,” Staudenmaier said.

PPA executive director Clarena Tolson, hired in October to replace Fenerty, said Dickson and Weldon will not be able to recoup the time in the future. She said they had agreed to forfeit the comp time prior to the records request and their Jan. 17 emails to payroll as part of an ongoing effort to rein in the practice.

“It’s a process that started in November but ended in January,” Tolson said.

Dickson also said in his email to senior staff and the PPA board that his decision was unrelated to requests for those records.

“The fact that the Inquirer was asking about comp balances had no influence on our decision to forfeit comp time, a decision that was made weeks before by Dennis and I,” Dickson wrote.

Regardless, Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel at the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said a Right-to-Know request “is for records in existence at the time of the request. There should be nothing changed.”

The PPA has provided shifting explanations for how and when Weldon and Dickson relinquished their comp time.

Last month, PPA spokesman Marty O’Rourke had declined to say on what day in January it occurred. O’Rourke also said there was no way to determine what their past balances had been once they were changed to zero.

That was contradicted by an email that Darryl White, the PPA’s human resources coordinator, had sent Dickson in November. It included a spreadsheet containing that information for each of the agency’s 1,100 employees.

Corinne O’Connor, the agency’s third deputy executive director, had accumulated small amounts of comp time – 15.63 hours as of March 2016 and 5.25 hours as of November 2016.

Last month, hours after a reporter called O’Connor about the comp-time situation, O’Connor emailed Gallen, the payroll director.

“Please remove the one hour comp time I have left on the books,” O’Connor wrote. “Thanks.”