norman-benoit_web.jpgDEERFIELD BEACH — Another high-ranking city official is at the center of a criminal investigation after he recently took unauthorized sick leave, then said it was for a job-related injury that happened more than 21 years ago, according to city records.

Norman Benoit, 67, of Fort Lauderdale, the city’s chief plumbing and mechanics inspector, has been forced to retire and is required to repay thousands of dollars he improperly received after claiming he was sick and unable to work, according to city records.

He must repay more than $7,500 to the city, under an agreement between himself and the city in which he avoided termination and agreed to work only part-time.

Nevertheless, the Broward Sheriff’s Office has opened a criminal investigation into the matter. Theft charges, with city taxpayers as the alleged victims, may be filed.

“The investigation is still underway into allegations of improper sick leave payments,” BSO spokeswoman Keyla Concepcion said in an email to the South Florida Times. “It will be a couple of more weeks before we present the case to the SAO [Broward State Attorney’s Office].”

Benoit did not respond to messages left at his office and on his city answering machine from the South Florida Times.

Benoit, who makes $71,000 a year, was receiving his full paycheck, but was only reporting to work two days a week  since May, city records show.

In response to questions about Benoit’s unusual work schedule from the South Florida Times, City Manager Mike Mahaney on July 10 ordered a review of Benoit’s salary and compensation.

The review revealed some irregularities. Benoit was reportedly sick and unable to report to work on numerous dates between Jan. 1 to July 27, 2008, according to city records. During a June 22 meeting, Benoit told city officials he was being paid via sick leave compensation, three days a week, due to an on-the-job-injury. The injury has been classified as confidential.

The city determined that those payments were not related to any job injury after all, and that Benoit had received the payments improperly.

After city officials confronted Benoit with that information, he explained that Jim Sennello, his former supervisor, had authorized his use of sick leave compensation in that manner.

Sennello resigned (he later retired) earlier this year, and is under criminal investigation for improperly authorizing overtime payments to his secretary.

“Using sick leave in this manner is not acceptable and Mr. Benoit has reimbursed the City approximately $7,600 as shown on the attached agreement,” Mahaney wrote in a July 25 internal memo to city commissioners.

“Whereas, the city has calculated that Employee [Benoit] should repay the City in the amount of $7,579.22, representing the increased costs incurred by the City as a result of the Employee taking sick leave for reasons not acceptable under the City Personnel Rules and Regulations,’’ reads a section of an agreement reached between Benoit and city officials on July 24.

Though it is not stated in the agreement, Mahaney said Benoit was given the choice of retiring, and then continuing to work with the city in the same position, on a part-time basis, or possibly facing other consequences, including termination.

Benoit accepted the retirement and part-time job effective July 27.

“I think it was the right thing to do. I think he may have been misled, and it [his continued part-time employment] is in the best interest of the city,” Mahaney explained when asked why Benoit was not terminated.

“He said Jim [Sennello] allowed him to do it, and I have no way to prove or disprove that,” Mahaney said.

Part of Benoit’s job involves reviewing blueprints and performing field inspections at construction sites. Even though new projects are few, Mahaney said county and state regulations require the position to be filled.

Benoit works in the Building Services Department, which until recently was headed by Sennello.

A recent city investigation determined that Sennello had approved $5,780.58 in questionable overtime pay for his secretary, Peggy Moore, on dates it could not be verified that she was at work. In the face of this revelation, Sennello abruptly resigned and retired from his $96,082-a-year job on June 27.

As a secretary in the city’s planning and growth management division, Moore reported directly to Sennello. She, too, resigned from her $50,218-a-year job on June 30, days after Sennello stepped down.

Like Benoit, Moore signed an agreement in which she did not admit any wrongdoing, but was required to repay the money to the city.

In the cases of Sennello and Moore, city officials have turned over documents and other evidence to BSO, along with a request for an investigation, which is ongoing.

A similar request has been made related to the payments Benoit received.

Mahaney said he followed the same process in the Benoit situation as he did with the incident involving Moore.

“I handed everything we found in the Benoit investigation over to BSO, and they are looking at it,” Mahaney said. “So we’ll let the chips fall wherever they may.”

Photo: Norman Benoit