When a Santa Ana police executive, Inspector Hank Couisine, retired last month, he cashed out nearly $185,000 in unused time off, which included money for more than 1,000 hours beyond the cap for vacation time accrual stipulated in the city's labor agreement with police.
The maximum amount of vacation hours Couisine could have accrued under the agreement is 600, according to an email from Assistant City Attorney Laura Rossini to Voice of OC. Others with knowledge of the agreement say the vacation accrual cap is actually 480 hours.
Regardless, Couisine cashed out 1,730 hours in vacation time, according to figures provided by Rossini, meaning that he received anywhere between $69,246 and $76,600 more than the labor agreement allows. All told, Couisine cashed out more than 3,000 hours in vacation, sick, holiday and comp time — equivalent to more than a year of eight-hour workdays.
The payout has raised questions from Santa Ana City Council members and a good-government expert regarding whether Couisine received an illegal disbursement of taxpayer funds. Meanwhile, sources close to City Hall say the payout at least smacks of favoritism, if not corruption, as Couisine was known to be a close confidant of former Police Chief and City Manager Paul Walters.
“Did somebody give him permission to approve more unused hours, and did that person have the authority to waive the contract?” asked Tracy Westen, CEO of the Center for Governmental Studies.
City officials have so far not revealed who authorized Couisine's accrual of vacation time beyond the cap. However, Voice of OC was able to obtain a 2009 memo sent by Couisine to Walters asking for a waiver, but it has not been determined whether Walters ultimately gave the go-ahead.
“As to the reason for Hank’s carryover or who approved that, I do not have any information regarding that question at this time,” Rossini wrote in her email.
Walters was the city's police chief for more than two decades until 2011, when he was installed as city manager after the retirement of Dave Ream. Then earlier this year, Walters was ousted as part of the new council majority's effort to reduce the influence of Mayor Miguel Pulido over the city bureaucracy.
In January, Walters himself negotiated a lucrative exit package valued at $706,396, including military retirement credits; accrued holiday, vacation and sick pay; and one year's worth of salary, medical and retirement benefits.
Walters remains the city's police commissioner — essentially a regional law enforcement liaison — for a year and will have the police headquarters renamed after him, per his resignation agreement.
It has long been rumored that officers close to Walters during his tenure as chief received special perks. Couisine, who worked in special investigations, retired March 13, six weeks after Walters' resignation.
“We've had rumors that something was going on in that area,” said Councilman Sal Tinajero. “We had people who were kind of speaking out at certain times … but not really making a formal 'go take a look.' ”
Councilwoman Michele Martinez said the payout “smells like cronyism.”
The memo obtained by Voice of OC shows that Couisine asked Walters for permission to carry over the excess hours just before the end of the 2009 calendar year.
“I currently have 688 hours of must use time on the books for the year 2009. I respectfully request to carry these hours over for the year of 2010,” reads the memo, dated Dec. 21, 2009.
Couisine and Walters did not return messages seeking comment, and Pulido hung up on a reporter.
Several council members say they will be looking into the matter.
“We definitely need to do some research and get to the bottom of what happened,” said Councilman David Benavides.
Said Martinez: “Why would we favor one employee over another and not follow the city policy? I will be asking my city manager to work with our chief to assure these policies are not broken again.”
Westen said that without evidence of clear authority for an official to grant the carryover, Couisine may have to refund the money. However, he added, if a city official granted him such a request, then Couisine could argue that he did nothing wrong and was relying on the money for personal financial planning.
Likewise, Westen said, if the official who approved the exception did not have authority to do so, the official could argue it was simply a mistake.
News of the payout to a Walters ally also comes just as city leaders gear up for negotiations with the city's police association. The labor group's president, John Franks, declined comment on the situation.