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Dating-service calls targeted

Pinellas Park officials try to identify the employee who made phone calls worth more than $2,500 in service charges and lost working time.

By ANNE LINDBERG

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 20, 2000


PINELLAS PARK -- The city's risk management director left his job last week as officials sought to identify who made hundreds of calls to dating services from a city telephone.

Records show the calls originated from an extension in the office suite of Jim Johnson. Johnson, a 12-year city veteran, advised his supervisor in a handwritten memo Tuesday that he resigned and retired.

Pinellas Park officials counted more than 500 calls to the two Tampa-area services and another 63 calls to a home in the Citrus County community of Beverly Hills -- about 69 hours of working time. Other calls were made from the city phones on weekends.

More than half the time logged on that city extension during the past year was spent calling those three numbers, officials concluded.

They estimated it cost Pinellas Park a little more than $2,500 between lost working time and the price of the calls.

Johnson, 58, denied Friday that the internal investigation had prompted his decision. Johnson, a diabetic, said he had been considering retirement because of a heavy workload and a doctor's recommendation that he cut back on his work hours.

Johnson, who was making $55,640 a year, said he knew nothing of the inquiry when he tendered his resignation/retirement. He said he was unsure how that many calls could have been made from a line in his office suite.

His supervisor, Tom Owens, who heads the Human Resources Department and conducted part of the investigation, defended Johnson, saying there was no evidence to prove Johnson had made the calls.

"I never concluded who made those phone calls," Owens said. "I was not able to establish that. . . . No one can explain how those phone calls were made."

Owens said that no one he interviewed in his department admitted making the calls.

"Nothing anyone told me throughout the process led me to the conclusion (of) who did or did not make those phone calls," Owens said.

Part of the problem in deciding who made the calls, he said, is the access to the phone line.

The extension is on the phones in Johnson's former two-room office suite, Owens said, but three people work there.

Additionally, six other people work in the Human Resources Department and walk in and out of Johnson's suite daily. So do members of the public, Owens said.

As for the weekend calls, Owens said a number of people have a master key to City Hall. Owens said he's not sure how many master keys have been issued, but many have gone to various people ranging from City Hall employees to the mayor and council members to the cleaning crew and maintenance personnel.

Owens said Johnson's departure did not end the investigation. That ended when Owens himself wrote a $165 check to the city to pay for the calls. No other Human Resources employees have been disciplined; only Johnson has left his job.

"I don't want this hanging over Human Resources," Owens said.

The phone calls came to light a couple of weeks ago after a member of the city's accounting staff began wondering why there were so many lengthy calls to the same numbers. The matter was turned over to the city's internal auditor and the computer department, which investigated with the okay of City Manager Jerry Mudd.

Among their findings were phone calls that lasted anywhere from fractions of a minute to more than 130 minutes during working hours. They dialed the numbers and found all three were answered by recordings.

One was to Megaphone, a telephone dating service in the 813 area code. Another was to the Tampa Live Wire, which warns callers that they must be at least 18 years old to call. It then asks for a mailbox number so callers can access the services. The third apparently was to a private residence in Beverly Hills. Calls Thursday and Friday were answered by a machine.

Officials traced all calls as coming from the 1600 extension in Johnson's risk management office, which is in Owens' larger suite. Owens apparently talked to Johnson on Tuesday, although it's unclear what was discussed.

Shortly after, Johnson handed in a terse, handwritten note that said, "This is to advise you that effective today at 9 a.m., I am resigning and retiring from city employment."

The dating-service callscome at a time when five police officers have complained publicly of various forms of harassment and discrimination. The city has called in an outside consultant to study Police Department morale and make suggestions for improvements.

Interviews are scheduled to begin Aug. 29 when the consultant meets with Mudd, the police chief, upper-level police administrators and representatives from the police union.

City officials also want to hire a retired judge to investigate claims that the department has a "hit list" of employees targeted for firing because of their ages and their willingness to speak out about conditions in the department.

Mudd, the city manager, said Friday the city's attorneys still are looking for someone to fill that position. Two judges have been eliminated from a list of possible choices because one was on an extended vacation. The other knew police Chief David Milchan and was eliminated because of possible bias.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.

http://www.sptimes.com/News/082000/news_pf/SouthPinellas/Dating_service_calls_.shtml