Few things satisfy Skip Gallagher like sanding wood.
The University of New Orleans chemistry instructor, Alger Point activist and former Louisiana Statehouse candidate was collecting old shutters and baseboards discarded after Hurricane Katrina, tossing them in his truck and setting out to working on the grain hour after tedious hour.
“You leave me alone with an old piece of cypress or old pine…it’s beautiful,” Gallagher, 59, said. “I don’t know anyone who has spent more time sanding than me. It’s pretty sad.
Lately, Gallagher has turned his grip of mind-numbing boredom into a tool of civic power, training him for more than a year with the New Orleans Police Department. The results were outrageous.
The FBI is in the midst of a widening investigation into allegations of payroll fraud within the force, thanks to timesheets that Gallagher spent about 1,600 hours gathering, compiling and analyzing. He says his research shows many officers are doubling up on shifts and off-duty security jobs, or logging implausible hours.
Police Superintendent Shaun Ferguson recently said 11 officers were in the federal crosshairs, including five who received “target” letters from the FBI. The police department, the New Orleans Inspector General and the Office of Independent Police Monitor have launched their own investigation into the timesheets of 33 officers, based on data from handcrafted spreadsheets by Gallagher.
Officers under watch could see criminal charges. An internal report on a police captain, Sabrina Richardson, has been referred to District Attorney Jason Williams’ office for possible charges.
The scandal has left eggs on the faces of city hall and police department officials as they reach the home stretch of federal police department oversight after a decade. Gallagher’s efforts revealed a police force that did not — and now says it could not — track compliance with officer work limits. The town hall has promised several reforms.
The Police Secondary Employment Office, set up in 2013 to regulate off-duty work, said last fall it regularly checks officers’ hours and saw “no concerns” about inappropriate hours for officers. But Gallagher’s spreadsheets suggest otherwise.
“It’s their job. They should be investigating, and they are not,” Gallagher said. “It’s not fun to go through, without exaggeration, thousands and thousands of pages of documents. It’s tedious. It’s a lot of work. What worries me is that I’ve been there for almost a year and six months, and it’s still going on.
“Who are you going to? »
Gallagher’s question started by chance. A former student, Karl Von Derhaar, was a civilian working for the police department’s crime lab when Von Derhaar’s boss, Sgt. Michael Stalbert and two other officers went to Von Derhaar’s home in September 2020 to escort him for a drug test. Von Derhaar resigned and later received back pay.
Von Derhaar began researching government salaries online and discovered that Stalbert and several other officers were on large salaries. Some agents eclipsed $200,000 a year when shifts, overtime and off-duty security details were combined. Curiously, the highest paid officers were mostly rank and file soldiers.
Although the police Public Integrity Office is supposed to investigate officers’ misconduct, Von Derhaar did not trust it with the information. So he called Gallagher’s UNO office.
“Who do you go to when you have suspicions like that? You can file a GDP complaint. But then, will GDP do anything? Will it come back to haunt you? asked Von Derhaar, a forensic chemist.
Gallagher began filing a slew of document requests, which now number in the hundreds. It started with Stalbert, who is among five officers who received target letters from the FBI.
If Stalbert was the spark, the pandemic was the fuel, said Gallagher, whose office walls are lined with colorful photos of travels to distant lands: Burma, Cambodia, Kenya, Tanzania, Palau.
“Usually, when school is over, I leave. COVID kept me here,” he said. “I don’t know what other people have done for COVID, but I started digging into those records.”
Gallagher discovered time sheets showing up to 31 hours worked per day. He identified 10 schemes officers use to commit fraud, he said, and nearly a dozen “sleep details,” regular off-duty police jobs where attendance appears to be optional.
Lately, Gallagher has been reviewing data from license plate readers to identify officers’ whereabouts and compare it to their timesheets.
“I’m really encouraged that the FBI took an interest in this. I really hope they look a little deeper,” Gallagher said. “It’s well over 50 agents who have serious pay problems that would be difficult to explain. We are not talking about one problem or two or three.
“A Rare Bird”
Gallagher, who moved to New Orleans 25 years ago to teach night classes for the UN, has had dealings with city officials before. A former president of the Algiers Point Association, he participated in a neighborhood campaign to restore ferry service on the Mississippi River which was disrupted after Hurricane Katrina. He pressed the Regional Transit Authority over inspection reports of new ferries that were inactive, and he sued RTA over public records.
He turned that neighborhood activism into a run for state representation in 2015, but finished third in a six-person field, for a seat won by Gary Carter Jr. Gallagher got 16% of the vote.
“He’s like, ‘If I don’t [run], Who’s gonna do it?’ And the answer is nobody. It’s a rare bird,” said Fay Faron, a retired private detective and close friend who ran Gallagher’s campaign.
Not everyone is thrilled with Gallagher’s recent investigation. Some dispute the severity of the payroll abuses he says he uncovered.
“These things can be a lot more complicated than they look,” said Donovan Livacarri, attorney for the local Fraternal Order of Police. “My suggestion to everyone would be to not jump to conclusions and wait until all the evidence is on the table.”
Even the police give credit
When asked what credit the police department gives Gallagher for rooting out corruption within the force, the agency, in a statement, called his efforts “meaningful,” while adding that a formal investigation must take place before officers are disciplined.
“Every opportunity is a learning experience. We learned of shortcomings in the secondary employment system that might not otherwise have been discovered,” the agency said.
U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan, who oversees the police department’s consent decree, described the allegations as concerning during a hearing last month, but not a barrier to removing federal oversight.
Jonathan Aronie, the federal comptroller, put an optimistic spin on the revelations. The scandal, “although quite disturbing, is also very much a reflection of the upward shift,” Aronie said. “A diligent citizen discovered much of this because New Orleans was transparent with its data.”
Anonymous calls, suspicious cars
Yet Gallagher paints a much more frustrating and perilous picture, saying City Hall blocked many of its early data requests for months. As he began soliciting more records and checking timesheets, Gallagher began to fear for his safety.
“I had anonymous calls. I was followed by several unmarked cars to campus. I have had relatives and friends approached by uniformed officers – not threateningly but trying to find out information about me,” he said. “Several times.”
Gallagher, whose first name is Charles, considered going to Mississippi for a while to get away from it all, living with his parents, a retired engineer and U.S. Navy veteran who toured Vietnam, and a mother who wrote a newspaper column to Gautier.
He ended up staying put and the calls died down last fall after the scandal broke. The anonymous calls he’s getting now, Gallagher said, are from tipsters.
Gallagher still works his spreadsheets daily, in his office between classes or at night. It recently automated the process, he said, which speeds up bird-dog fouls from top-paid officers.
“The behavior is still happening and it needs to stop. You allow active NOPD agents to continue flying.
Now listen, I’m a chemist, but I can read the law,” he said. “I’m not giving up now. I’m quite tenacious.