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Long Beach files suit against one former, one current employee in payout scandal

City Councilman John Bendo questioned separation payments for several high-level city employees.
City Councilman John Bendo questioned separation payments for several high-level city employees.
Christina Daly/Herald

In its continuing effort to recoup what it calls improper separation payments, the City of Long Beach has filed suit in Supreme Court in Mineola against one current and three former employees.

A complaint was filed against Michael Tangney, a former city police chief and city manager. The city claims he owes it $29,708.

The suit also named Kristie Hansen-Hightower, who resigned in 2017 as the city comptroller and now lives in Suffolk County. The suit claims that she owes the city about $28,000.

Gordon Tepper, who resigned as director of public relations in September 2018, was also sued. He is now working in the same position for the Town of North Hempstead. The city says Tepper owes about $22,000.

A similar complaint was filed against Michael Robinson, who court papers say is currently the director of fleet management for the city. The documents also state that between January 2012 and February 2018, Robinson was Long Beach’s director of community development and deputy city manager.

A message left for Robinson at his home was not returned. Hightower, who now works for the Town of Southold, declined to comment Wednesday. Tangney could not be reached by press time.

Rick Ostrove, Tepper’s attorney, said he believed the lawsuits were “baseless” and would be dismissed.

The city’s outside counsel, Ingerman Smith, of Hauppauge, is handling the case.

According to court documents, on Dec. 15, 2017, Tangney received a payment of $51,992.67, representing 70 percent of his unused sick leave, which amounted to 463.29 hours. Because the city’s Personnel Code states that at termination, exempt employees are entitled to just 30 percent of their accrued sick time, and because Tangney did not leave Long Beach’s employ until May 29, 2020, the payment was improper, the suit alleges.

The city has calculated the overage to be 264.73 hours, and claims that Tangney was overpaid by $29,708.

The court documents state that Tepper was overpaid $22,295.28 in compensatory time. According to the filings, on or about Sep. 1, 2018, Tepper submitted for, and was granted, payment of $30,756.73 for 546.31 unused vacation hours. The city claims that Tepper was entitled to be paid for only 400 hours of that vacation time. He also received overtime pay to which he was not entitled, the court papers allege.

The city claims that Tepper was sent two notices about the overpayments, and that he refused to reimburse the city. Robinson, the papers say, received a payment of $35,411.53 on Dec. 1, 2017, for 564.58 sick hours — 70 percent of his unused sick leave. “Employees are entitled to 30% of their accrued sick time, and because Robinson did not leave his employment with the City, the entire payment was improper,” court documents state. Robinson also received notification of the alleged overpayment and also refused to reimburse the city, according to the documents.

“It would be against equity and good conscience,” the city stated in the documents, to allow Tepper and Robinson “to retain the improperly paid funds as it was taxpayer money that was improperly paid” to them, and they were “not entitled to receive that money by the clear language of the City Charter/Personnel Code.”

The actions against Tepper and Robinson are part of a broad effort by Long Beach to reclaim excess funds paid to at least 10 employees who received more than $500,000 in separation payouts in the 2017-18 fiscal year.

The city also approved payments for unused leave accruals, or “drawdowns,” totaling $229,494, to eight city officers and employees who did not leave the city’s employ, including Robinson and Rob Agostisi, Long Beach’s former corporation counsel and acting city manager. Agostisi is now the attorney for the Long Island LGBT Network.

The findings of an audit by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli recommended that the City Council seek to recoup overpayments that were inconsistent with the city’s Code of Ordinances or collective bargaining agreements. Two of the 10 employees were then City Manager Jack Schnirman and Agostisi. Last year the city filed suits against the two men for their purported role in the payout scheme. Schnirman, now the Nassau County comptroller, returned $52,000 to the city. He has announced that he will not seek re-election.

The Herald was the first to corroborate City Councilman John Bendo’s claim that Schnirman was overpaid by more than $50,000, after obtaining Schnirman’s separation payout forms and employment contract through a Freedom of Information request.

Last September, Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas issues a scathing report on the payout scandal, saying her office supported the audit conducted by DiNapoli’s office, which found the payouts were “excessive and inconsistent with the applicable law.”