Houston Department of Public Works Director Jerry King didn't think twice when he signed the letter. He'd only been on the job a couple of days, and the sheet of paper requiring his autograph was but one in a massive stack that seemed to have no end.
Had he read the memo closely, however, King might not have been so quick with the pen. The April 3 note requested approval of a "voluntary demotion" for Charles Satterfield, the chief senior inspector in the department's Street and Bridge Division. Satterfield wanted to step down to become an assistant public works maintenance manager, though he'd be doing the same work as before, and take no cut in pay.
Satterfield wasn't owning up to any professional failings or breaches of ethics, the usual reasons for a self-inflicted dip in status. He took the demotion to qualify for overtime pay, thereby substantially boosting his annual income.
At the time, downtown's Texaco Grand Prix auto racetrack project was behind schedule and needed some serious extra attention -- a bunch of the asphalt had to be torn up and replaced because it did not meet specifications -- and with the racing weekend itself just months away, the deadlines were inflexible. Many people involved in the project, including various consultants and city workers, were putting in extra hours to get the track ready.
Houstonians may have known the Grand Prix preparations to be a massive detour-plagued pain in their regular downtown commutes. But those torn-up and revamped streets proved to be a gold mine for many public works employees. By the time race cars were sliding through turns, indications were that overtime pay had already spun out of control.
But as chief senior inspector, Satterfield couldn't collect anything except his regular salary under city rules. If he was going to work on the track beyond the standard 40 hours, he'd have to do it on his own time. Until, that is, the unusual strategy was devised.
City human resources director Lonnie Vara says that the arrangement, though unusual, would meet a legal challenge. But the demotion angle was the second attempt to get Satterfield access to time-and-a-half pay. Vara rejected the first, a written request from former director Jimmie Schindewolf in January for an exemption from the rules. "I couldn't exempt him from the law," Vara recalls. "That's what the [request] seemed to be asking me to do."
Just what the city ultimately got for its money is another intriguing question. The letter requesting the voluntary demotion noted that Satterfield would be "placed in charge of several high-profile projects for the city of Houston" in preparation for the Grand Prix. "Mr. Satterfield interfaces directly with the contractors on these projects and directs all activities in the area," as well as generally working "an extremely high volume of hours," the letter continues. Under the circumstances, it would only be fair to compensate Satterfield for his hard work.
That makes sense in a vacuum, but the city had already contracted in February with an engineering consulting firm, Turner Collie & Braden, to do essentially the same thing. For $87,000, the firm supplied a full-time engineer, Bert Link, who was also available for additional hours as needed. Records of meetings about the project indicate that Satterfield attended some but missed others.
And several people who worked on the project say Satterfield was hardly the omnipresent overseer the letter implies. "You'd probably see him once a day in the field," says one worker, "and then he'd be gone."
Even if Satterfield's presence was necessary, it doesn't explain why he billed the city for overtime worked in February, March and early April -- even though the demotion didn't take effect until April 25. Nor does it explain why he waited until September to collect six months' worth of OT, as documents obtained by the Press indicate.
Regardless, Satterfield reaped a nice reward for his efforts. His final overtime tally exceeded $11,000, an increase over his annual salary of more than 23 percent.
It remains unclear who concocted the special deal for Satterfield, who refused to speak with the Press. His boss, Sheri Holloway, is no longer with the city -- like so many public works officials from the Bob Lanier/Schindewolf era, she recently slithered back to the private sector just as things were getting a little squirmy around the office. (Holloway, for example, was having a hard time explaining why she'd asked a consultant to hire an inspector to join the city's paving team, even though that inspector had previously been caught signing off on substandard city sidewalk jobs.)
The finger also points at Tom Rolen, who directs the Maintenance and Right-of-Way Division and served as the city's liaison with the race promoter. Satterfield's new job, assistant public works maintenance manager, was in Rolen's division.
But Rolen says his involvement in the deal was minimal -- it didn't, for example, entail any supervision of his new employee. According to Rolen, Holloway and ex-deputy director Buddy Barnes came to him and asked if he could help swing the job-swap, and he happened to have a vacancy. "I loaned them a position to help them do what they needed to do," he says.
The racetrack project, which was marred by a series of delays and cost problems, had a reputation for overtime shenanigans. "We thought it was a joke," says a city employee familiar with the project. "People were just down there cashing in."
In response to these and other tales of OT abuse, King issued a memo on September 29 canceling all overtime in the Construction Division through next January until the problems are investigated. "We're basically gonna have to clean that up," he says.
King has been repeating those words frequently since he took over the department. He put a similar hold on out-of-town travel after suspicions were raised that business wasn't the only item on the agenda when employees took trips. "We had people going to Las Vegas and all over the place," King says. That investigation is still under way.
The director chooses his words carefully when discussing the previous administration, but he admits that the state of the department when he arrived surprised him. "I didn't dream it would be this involved," King says.
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In fact, the depths of the corruption that existed under Schindewolf -- nepotism, cronyism, bribe-taking, petty theft, rampant waste -- would take years to unravel and require thousands of hours of labor that King just doesn't have available. "What you hate to do is spend all your time working on problems," he says.
Still, when problems manifest themselves, they can't be ignored. "Every day I take time out to work on the little ones," King says. "Then a big one jumps up at you."
Whether King will clean up the mess before his term expires remains to be seen. He acknowledges that with a department as massive as public works, it's impossible to root out all the bad apples quickly, or even identify them. But he's already made a number of personnel and other changes that indicate he's serious about altering the culture at 611 Walker. "What we can do is send messages that [corruption] won't be tolerated, that this is a new day," he says. "We have an opportunity now for change. We need to take advantage of that."
E-mail Bob Burtman at email@example.com.