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Overtime Again an Issue for Police?

House and Senate appropriators have gone to great lengths this year to stress the importance of building a strong financial management system within the Capitol Police, and a key part of that effort is regaining Member confidence in the department’s overtime pay system. But that issue is nearing a boiling point again.

Just two years ago, leaders of the House Appropriations Committee were concerned that the agency’s overtime and compensatory leave system had spiraled out of control in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the now-constant heightened security for Capitol Hill. At that time, the Capitol Police Board, which oversees the department, asked the Government Accountability Office to help untangle some of the kinks in the system.

But with Congress staying in session late into the night during the weeks leading up to the recess, and with al-Qaida threatening an attack in Washington, D.C., sometime between now and Sept. 11, the department has been getting very little down time.

In fact, when it comes to the allocation of overtime, Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer said last week, “There has been a real pull on the need for overtime. … If all of August is like the last couple of weeks we’d all been in a heap of trouble.”

But recognizing the concerns that appropriators have raised in the past and again in this year’s budgeting cycle, Gainer said the new top brass at the department is being “very prudent” in its management of overtime and comp time hours.

“I know that Chief [Phillip] Morse and Assistant Chief [Dan] Nichols have been almost miserly on the allocation of hours,” said Gainer, who serves as chairman of the oversight board. “The police board is monitoring this pretty close and the chief gives us updates every two weeks. He hasn’t pushed any panic buttons yet but he indicates that he’s closely monitoring it.”

Gainer knows well the importance of monitoring leave time at the department.

Back in 2005, when he was chief of the Capitol Police, he took a great deal of heat from lawmakers after two GAO reports found not only that he and his top deputies had accrued leave hours despite a 2003 regulation prohibiting the practice, but also that many department employees had accumulated comp time well beyond the allowable 240 hours that may be carried over annually.

After the reports were issued, Gainer and two of his top deputies agreed to surrender no fewer than 1,500 hours and he also reached a deal with members of the Appropriations and House Administration committees that allowed his officers to reduce their comp time balances on a gradual basis. All but 240 hours had to be used by the end of 2006.

The GAO has an ongoing mandate from Congress to review Capitol Police management operations and it reports back to appropriators annually. A GAO spokesman said last week that a study of department comp time and overtime policies is part of that review.

Morse, a 22-year veteran of the Capitol Police who rose quickly through the ranks during Gainer’s tenure at the department, was tapped to lead the agency in October 2006 and made establishing good financial and personnel management practices an often-quoted priority.

During the fiscal 2008 budgeting process, appropriators acknowledged that progress was being made but also noted their continued concerns with the department.

“The Committee acknowledges the commitment from the new Chief and Assistant Chief of the Capitol Police to make financial management a priority of the new administration,” the report accompanying the House version of the appropriations bill reads. “However, the Committee is still deeply concerned over the Capitol Police’s lack of progress in developing fully functional financial management operations capable of obtaining audit opinions on a full set of financial statements. … the Committee will not accept nor entertain any further delays or excuses for the poor management of financial operations.”

A spokeswoman for the Capitol Police would not comment on current leave policies for officers.

But when it comes to overtime and comp time hours, Gainer said that since taking over the department, Morse and Nichols have “made some efficiencies, which gives them a little bit of cushion” on hours that can be doled out. However, he acknowledged that “at the beginning of this fiscal year I don’t think anybody anticipated that either the House or the Senate would be working as many days as they have,” which has eaten into that cushion.

Gainer told The Washington Post last week the increased security alert level that was instigated by a recent al-Qaida threat to Washington does not involve officers working overtime or extra shifts.

But, the chairman of the House Administration Committee said last week, if the department does get to the point where it requires additional overtime hours to keep Congress safe, security will remain priority No. 1 on Capitol Hill.

“I view our role in helping to ensure the safety of Members, staff and visitors as the most important duty of the committee and I wholeheartedly support the individuals who continue to ensure our safety,” House Administration Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.) said Friday. “They will have access to whatever resources they need, inclusive of overtime, because I don’t think that any of us wants to put a price tag on our safety.”

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