Three Columbus police officers plead guilty for double-dipping, 17 more under investigation
Three veteran Columbus police officers have pleaded guilty to criminal charges and resigned and 17 more are under administrative investigation over allegations that they engaged in "time theft" and double-dipping by simultaneously working for the city and on special duty for private employers.
William R. McCague, 55, Robert A. Thissen, 52, and Joseph A. Townsend, 51, each pleaded guilty Thursday morning in Franklin County Municipal Court to a single misdemeanor count of dereliction of duty as part of a plea deal that included an agreement to retire.
Judge James E. Green accepted the pleas and imposed $88 in fines for each defendant to cover court costs. Joseph Gibson, chief prosecutor for the Columbus City Attorney's office, did not request fines as part of the pleas.
Gibson said prosecutors agreed not to take the cases to a Franklin County grand jury — where more serious charges could have resulted — if the officers resigned and pleaded guilty to the single misdemeanor count. As a result, jail time and probation were not involved.
Each defendant appeared separately with their defense attorneys, Mark Collins and Kaitlyn Stephens, in front of the judge for brief hearings Thursday morning, during which their guilty pleas were entered but none of them spoke.
Affidavits filed with the court early Thursday morning allege that a Columbus police internal investigation found unaccounted-for hours, misrepresented work hours or "double-dipping" over several months in 2020.
Glenn McEntyre, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, said 17 other officers are under "active administrative investigation." He said as a result of the investigation, there have been stricter monitoring elements put in place and random audits. No similar instances of time abuse or double-dipping have been reported since those measures were put in place, he said.
The plea agreement includes relatively modest, negotiated restitution payments of $1,340.40 for Thissen and $737.22 for Townsend. McCague is not required to pay restitution, according to Gibson.
McCague and Townsend also agreed to surrender their Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy certification, which means they can't seek employment with another law-enforcement agency in the state. Thissen gets to keep his certificate.
That's because unlike McCague and Townsend, Thissen never provided the city with false information about his whereabouts while on duty, Gibson said.
He said McCague's restitution would have been owed to a private employer, who didn't seek reimbursement.
McCague and Townsend have been members of the Columbus Division of Police for 27 years and Thissen for 29 years.
The city Department of Public Safety said Townsend and McCague retired in bad standing on Aug. 3 and Wednesday, respectively. Thissen retired on July 13.
Collins said after the hearing that most of the problems with hours worked occurred during the pandemic, after his three clients' duties were changed.
"There was confusion," Collins said. "There wasn't a lot of direction from the department and, unfortunately, (the officers) allowed an overlap of time and it was a mistake on their part ... They pled to dereliction of duty because they should have been proactive and realized that when times overlapped with special duty, it was their mistake."
Gibson agreed that most of the issues arose after pandemic-related schedule changes, but said, "They had pretty clear orders."
Gibson prosecuted the case with Assistant Franklin County Prosecutor Jeffrey Blake, and said the pleas and resignations resulted from "intensive negotiations over months."
The investigation began in October 2020 when then-Police Chief Thomas Quinlan instructed Public Corruption Task Force officers to investigate "possible time theft and 'double dipping' among high school resource officers and community liaison officers," referring to officers assigned to work in high schools and those assigned to a specific patrol precinct to work directly with neighborhood and block watch groups.
Quinlan, who was demoted to deputy chief in January and replaced as chief by Elaine Bryant in June, on Thursday told The Dispatch that the investigation was "done proactively because there had been issues in the past with special duty and theft of time issues."
Affidavits spell out how veteran cops took advantage, fed off public trough
The allegations against the three officers who were criminally charged are outlined in affidavits, which were signed by Columbus police Sgt. Christopher Bond and filed with the misdemeanor charges.
Thissen and McCague were high school resource officers at the beginning of 2020, but the pandemic closed schools in March of that year. The officers then were placed in a series of other assignments, ranging from duty at a police call center to responding to Downtown social-justice protests and providing guard duty at hospitals for criminal suspects and others.
While still working in their assigned high schools from January through March 2020, the investigation "revealed unaccounted for hours" for both Thissen and McCague "due to arriving late or leaving ... prior to schools closing."
McCague became a community liaison officer in August 2020. Townsend was a community liaison officer throughout 2020.
"On many occasions" while working as community-liaison officers, McCague and Thissen "provided inaccurate information" concerning their whereabouts on their daily logs, the affidavits allege.
McCague also was found to have "double dipped" by working overlapping hours for the city and a special duty job for a car dealership in March 2020 and August 2020. The investigation also alleged that he was paid by the dealership "for more hours than he worked " from April through October.
Townsend was accused of working overlapping hours for the city and several special-duty private employers "every month from January through October of 2020."
The affidavit reveals that Townsend was placed under surveillance from Nov. 10-13, 2020, and "was observed to change his shift hours to accommodate special duty. He was observed frequently visiting special duty sites during his shifts."
Sitting in cruisers, doing nothing and getting paid, affidavits allege
On several occasions in November 2020, Townsend reported making runs or performing other police duties, but "he was observed by surveillance across the city not performing any of the listed runs or tasks, often idling in his cruiser at a substation."
Thissen was accused of double dipping by working overlapping hours for the city and at a special-duty job with a supermarket chain during six months in 2020.
"On several occasions," the sergeant wrote, "Thissen would drive to his special-duty employment and idle in his cruiser for up to an hour prior to the start of his special-duty hours."
In addition to conducting surveillance, task force investigators gathered cruiser GPS data and reviewed payroll records, ID card swipes, gas card usage, cruiser radio usage and the private employers' special duty records, according to the affidavits.
Dispatch reporter Bethany Bruner contributed to this report.