At the same time Lake County's disgraced former sheriff blamed a $1.6 million glut in annual jail overtime on federal quality standards, he went rogue, granting 1,400 or more hours per year in unauthorized time off for more than 30 jailers.
That's what Lake County Council members and new Sheriff Oscar Martinez say they're learning following former Lake County Sheriff John Buncich's ouster.
Buncich, ousted earlier this year because of a felony bribery conviction, argued he created the positions and benefits in question because he needed more supervisors in the jail, and the County Council wasn't willing to pay for them.
For years, Buncich blamed the unfunded mandates of a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice for massive overtime being paid to Lake County Jail corrections officers.
On an annual basis, Buncich would stand before the County Council, requesting hundreds of thousands of dollars beyond his budget to pay for off-the-rails overtime for his jail corrections officers.
Some County Council members would protest, but ultimately acquiesced, as Buncich blamed standards imposed in the Justice Department settlement agreement for the jailers’ burgeoning work hours.
But this week, the County Council and new sheriff are reporting that an unauthorized benefit and pay arrangement Buncich had with more than 30 jailers poured gasoline on the jail's fiery staffing challenges for as many as eight years.
I first wrote about the jail overtime issue in July, detailing a $1.58 million annual overtime expense that could be jeopardizing the safety of government workers in one of the Region's most potentially dangerous workplaces.
A computer-assisted Times review of jailers' 2016 wages showed some were averaging 100-plus hours per week.
At least five jailers earned as much as or more than the warden, with one earning $92,417.89 on the strength of $56,639.94 in overtime last year. That jailer’s pay was more than $20,000 higher than her boss, former jail warden Ed Davies, who was fired last month after the new sheriff said he learned Davies didn't meet federal qualification standards for jail administrators.
Of 227 corrections guards compensated by the county in 2016, 42 supplemented their base salaries by $10,000 or more in overtime, the payroll data revealed.
Under Buncich, the jail overtime problem grew to $1.58 million in 2016 from $591,661 in 2011 — a growth of 168 percent.
Beyond that expense, which forced the County Council nearly every year of Buncich's recent eight-year tenure to re-appropriate tax dollars, was the potential risk to human safety.
The jail staff collectively worked 93,149 overtime hours in 2016, with some individuals amassing 60 or more overtime hours, and more than 100 total hours, per work week.
For some, it was hard to fathom when they slept — or if they were sleeping — and how alert they could be while managing a potentially dangerous population of inmates.
"Is this safe for the guards or the prisoners?" County Councilman Dan Dernulc questioned in July when reviewing the jail overtime totals I gleaned from county records. "You have to look at these hours and say, 'How much is too much?'"
Buncich contended the overtime issue couldn't be helped. He blamed both the overtime expense — and the toll it took on jailers — on the need to follow U.S. Department of Justice standards imposed following the discovery of deficient jail standards a decade ago.
Last week, Lake County Councilman Eldon Strong said he learned that "was all a lie" — that Buncich was operating in the shadows.
Strong heads the Lake County Council committee that negotiates the labor contract with Lake County jailers.
During labor negotiations in October, Strong said it was revealed that Buncich operated a system — outside of and in violation of the labor contract — under which he designated as many as 35 jailers with the rank of corporal.
Buncich gave those jailers 40 hours of additional time off every year, labeled as comp time, that was beyond their standard benefits under the labor contract, Strong said.
That meant for up to 1,400 or more work hours each year, lower-ranking correctional officers had to work time-and-half to fill in for the corporals, Strong said.
This exacerbated a jail overtime problem already created by a high turnover rate among jail officers, County Council and Sheriff’s Department officials said.
The county hasn't determined how much money this system ended up costing taxpayers over an estimated eight-year period, but an investigation is ongoing.
Buncich fired back Tuesday, arguing the jail corporals were needed to shore up supervision in the jail.
He said the union was aware of the policy, which he instated because the Lake County Council wouldn't approve necessary funds to hire needed supervisors.
Lake County Council President Ted Bilski confirmed the matter has been referred to the State Board of Accounts for an investigatory audit, and Strong said the County Council's attorney also has referred the matter to federal authorities.
Sheriff Martinez, who succeeded Buncich in September after the former sheriff was convicted of federal felony bribery charges, confirmed Buncich was operating the corporal rank and benefits outside of the labor contract.
Martinez said it appears the former sheriff also gave similar unauthorized hours off to some training officers.
He said his department is working to correct the matter.
"We will do all we can to make this right and work with the County Council to ensure we're following the labor agreement," Martinez said. "This is not the fault of any jail officers. This is the fault of past management."
Lake County jailers union President Christopher Zelnis confirmed Tuesday the union is working with Martinez and the County Council to rectify the situation.
"Apparently there's quite a bit of shock among the County Council members that this was going on," Zelnis said. "He (Buncich) just kind of did it. I've been here five years, and the corporals are something the sheriff just kind of did on his own."
Strong said the sunlight of public knowledge is now disinfecting a problem that thrived under a shroud of Lake County Jail management.
That shroud was lifted when a felony conviction forcibly removed Buncich from the sheriff's office.
Were it not for his removal from office, the County Council and other government officials still may have been in the dark on at least one cause of the jail's overtime glut.
"We expect and hope that elected officials and department heads are honest with us when it comes time for the funding aspect the council provides," Strong said. "When they're not, you get a situation like this.
"We feel we were lied to — that all trust was violated. That makes me very sad and angry."
Now it's up to a new sheriff, the County Council, state auditors and others to pick up the pieces and make it right.