The Santa Ana City Attorney's office has opened an investigation into a recently retired police sergeant who received a controversial payout for unused time off, Voice of OC has confirmed.
An early phase of the investigation found that the nearly $185,000 payout to Hank Couisine, who served as executive inspector, was legal, according to sources familiar with a city attorney's office memo on the issue. A wider examination of Couisine's actions is still under way, and a "follow-up report" may be in the works, said Councilman David Benavides.
“We're still continuing to look at a number of questions,” Benavides said. “We're continuing to work on uncovering … where we've identified any causes for questions or anything that would appear not aboveboard.”
While Benavides did not offer more specifics, other sources close to the police department say officials are examining, among other issues, Couisine's time sheets to see whether he improperly claimed overtime.
City Attorney Sonia Carvalho did not return phone calls for comment.
For years, Couisine logged dozens of hours of overtime each month, records of overtime sheets obtained by Voice of OC show. And upon retirement he cashed out more than 3,000 hours in vacation, holiday, compensatory and sick time, equivalent to more than a year of eight-hour workdays.
The payout shocked many City Hall watchers. But the city attorney's memo cited a provision in the police labor contract that gave former Police Chief Paul Walters authority to grant special waivers that allowed Couisine to accumulate more than 1,000 hours above the vacation accrual limit set forth in the agreement, according to sources who have read the memo.
Special waivers notwithstanding, there remain questions about the amount of overtime Couisine was able to accumulate.
It has long been rumored that officers in Walters' inner circle during his tenure as chief received special perks. Couisine, who was known to be especially close to Walters, retired March 13, six weeks after Walters was forced out as city manager.
Couisine was a legendary figure in the department. In the 1980s he was shot in the neck during a standoff with a drug dealer. He not only recovered from the wound, which left him disfigured, but remained in top physical condition throughout his years on the force.
Former Santa Ana police officer Steven Alegre, who describes himself as a “staunch supporter” of Walters, was on the scene when Couisine was shot during the drug raid. He said Couisine was an "outstanding narcotics officer."
Alegre said Couisine was in his 70s but worked out regularly and was “probably the most physically fit specimen for a guy that age.”
Yet Couisine's time in a gym also attracted suspicion. Others close to the department, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, agree with Alegre's assessment regarding Couisine's fitness and wonder how he was able to accumulate so much overtime yet also spend so much time in the gym.
Officers who worked in the department for years described Couisine as not bound by department rules and “untouchable.” Sources point to a machine gun that had been missing from evidence that was found in Couisine's desk after he retired. It was also known that Couisine, who owns horses, was once seen loading hay into a police department truck.
Couisine and Walters did not return messages seeking comment.
Regardless of what happens with the larger investigation, Benavides and Councilman Vincent Sarmiento said the City Council will consider adjusting city policies to make sure that the largess Couisine received in unused time off doesn't happen again.
“We haven't seen that sort of abuse from other employees,” Sarmiento said. “But I do know that I have had conversations with staff to give us guidance on how we can change policy so that doesn't happen in the future.”
Benavides said that council members will consider “modifying” if not “striking altogether” the provision allowing the police chief to grant special waivers on accruing unused time off above the cap.
“It does come down to making sure we have the proper language and the proper safeguards,” Benavides said.