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Former Plantation mayor Frank Veltri secretly ordered city staff to issue him checks for $44,000 worth of possibly illegal vacation and sick-leave payoffs -- including a whopping $20,790 payment just after he left office in March, according to city hall records.
A preliminary investigation by city attorney Donald Lunny, Jr. has found that the payoffs weren't legal entitlements to the mayor, prompting one city councilman to say the city may have to sue the legendary 87-year-old politician to get the money back and another councilman to call for a criminal investigation.
City documents obtained by New Times show that Veltri began ordering payoffs to himself for sick leave in 1990 and then in 1997 began collecting checks for vacation time. The checks were relatively modest until March22 of this year, ten days after he stepped down from office, when he received two $10,395 checks, one representing 240 hours' worth of sick leave, the other 240 hours in vacation pay, according to city documents.
Ironically, the payments would likely have remained a secret if a long-time Veltri supporter and political ally had not brought them to light. The new mayor, Rae Carole Armstrong, found out about the payouts and asked the legal department if she, too, was eligible for such benefits. That inquiry began an intense three-month investigation by Lunny, who scoured city laws and came to this conclusion in a ten-page letter he sent to Armstrong on Monday: "The Mayor is a public officer and is not legally entitled to benefits otherwise afforded to city employees. In the absence of a resolution, ordinance, or motion and vote conferring annual leave and sick leave benefits upon the office of the Mayor, the office would not enjoy such benefits."
Lunny's extensive research found no such law, but he qualified his conclusion by noting that, though he went through every law that the city clerk and personnel office deemed applicable to the payments, his research has not been "exhaustive," and the city's investigation is continuing.
The heart of the matter, Lunny wrote in his report, is the clear and distinct difference between public officer and city employee. As mayor, Veltri was a public officer, a job that comes with no set work hours, no vacation, and no sick-leave pay. In effect Veltri could have taken off as many days as he wished. Yet he paid himself as if he were one of the city's regular employees, who can accrue up to 240 hours of sick leave and 480 hours of vacation and be paid upon retirement. The city found that Veltri didn't begin paying himself such benefits until 1990 -- after 16 years on the job -- when he received a $764 check for sickleave.
Veltri has often referred to himself as a "full-time mayor" and made arguments that he should be paid as such -- which led to a full-time salary for him that topped $88,000 last year. Armstrong says she spoke with Veltri about the payments in question and that his simple explanation is that he always considered himself a full-time employee.
The city's laws, however, don't appear to support that contention, and the secret payments have outraged two city council members. "I would certainly say he didn't comply with the ordinances of the City of Plantation," says Councilman Bruce Edwards. "It's a misuse of power."
Edwards, who has conducted his own investigation into the matter, says that Veltri ordered personnel director John McKenica to issue the payoffs and that finance director Bob Brekelbaum also was informed of the payments. "The financial director and the personnel director knew [Veltri] was receiving these payments. I asked them, 'Who gave you authorization to make those payments? Who gave you orders to cut those checks?' There was no authorization," says Edwards. "[Brekelbaum and McKenica] will tell you they were uncomfortable as hell making those payments, but they were given orders by Frank to doit."
Edwards says he believes it was the duty of Brekelbaum and McKenica to notify the city council, which by law is required to approve all the city's expenditures. "It's only responsible on their part that it should have been reported," hesays.
Brekelbaum refused to comment on the matter, and McKenica is on vacation this week and couldn't be reached. Veltri, contacted by telephone at his modest home in the historic district of Plantation, refused to discuss the city's investigation.
Edwards says he's learned that Veltri has been asked to give the money back and is considering it. But Lunny's report, citing legal precedents, found that "the legal entitlement to such benefits does not mean that the former mayor could be compelled to pay the compensation back to the city." Edwards says he doesn't agree with that conclusion, adding that the city may have to sue Veltri if he refuses to return the $44,000 voluntarily.
Councilman Lee Hillier, long an outspoken critic of Veltri, says he wants to see a criminal investigation begun into the payments, which he calls a "smokinggun."
"I think that a state attorney should look into this," Hillier says. "The public should expect a full and reasonable accounting of this matter. This is undue compensation without the council having any knowledge about how and why those checks were issued. This is an apple that's rotten to thecore."
Hillier finds it hard to believe that Veltri, a retired savings and loan executive, didn't know that the payments were improper. The councilman contends that the payoffs further show that, while Veltri was notoriously frugal with city money, he was quite liberal about filling his own pockets with it. The former mayor was also part of a secretive and much-derided move by the city council in 1987 to give the city's elected officials a lavish pension plan that pays Veltri $62,500 a year and provides him and his dependents free medical care for the rest of his life. The pension plan created controversy and was later abolished for future council members, but Veltri and seven others are still benefiting from it -- including current councilman Ralph Merritt, who didn't return a phone message left by New Times, and Armstrong.
When the council voted last year to have the pension plan independently investigated, Veltri vetoed the measure.
"How much more obscene can you get?" Edwards says. "Knowing all that, he writes himself a $20,000 check on his way out. That's some kind ofnerve."
Edwards says he blames the "strong mayor" form of government for the payments as much as he blames Veltri himself. He says it's not surprising that Veltri -- who for 24 years controlled all city departments and also wielded considerable power on various boards and committees throughout Broward County -- would take such liberties with the city's money. "At some point in Frank's political career, it got to the point that Frank got bigger than the City of Plantation," says Edwards.
Armstrong says she hasn't given up hope in trying to bail out Veltri and find clear legal justification for the compensation. "It could be that [authorization for the payments] is in place as part and parcel of another resolution we don't know about," she says. "It is a massivesearch."
It's not surprising that such extravagant efforts are being made to clear Veltri. Both Armstrong and Lunny are unlikely players in an investigation of the former mayor. Armstrong has been a political ally of Veltri's through the years, while Lunny owes Veltri, an old family friend, his job. It was Veltri who hired Lunny after Lunny's father retired from the post. But such close relationships didn't stop Armstrong from making the inquiry and Lunny from concluding that it appears the payments were illegal.
Hillier says he thinks that the continuing search of city records is only a waste of yet more of the city's money: "They'll never find anything that allows what Frank did," he says, "because it doesn't exist."
Contact Bob Norman at his e-mail address: Bob_Norman@newtimesbpb.com