Ferris PD works off-duty business
By 09/04/2003 00:00:00
Reserve account used to bill security services
FERRIS - Ferris Police Chief Jeff Cottongame is under investigation for holding an undisclosed bank account to bill and collect monies for off-duty police officers' security services.
The Ferris Police Reserves account was originally established at Commercial State Bank for petty cash-type deposits for candy machines, donations, fund raisers, etc., according to Ferris Mayor Jimmie Birdwell and Cottongame.
Additionally, Cottongame used the account to cash checks after billing the Ferris Independent School District for officers who worked security at athletic events.
The city was not aware the additional billing was being done out of the police department.
'I didn't know they were being paid separately for the security at games,' said Ferris City Secretary Alice Holloway. 'I thought they were on-duty officers.'
Holloway said Cottongame closed the account in July after she asked him for records concerning the account.
In a letter to the city secretary, Cottongame stated he had destroyed all records concerning the account.
She said when she tried to get copies of bank statements from Commercial; she was told Ferris Lt. Sherman Swafford told the bank not to release it.
Swafford denied telling the bank that, and the records were released because the city's federal identification number is on the account.
In the 2002/2003 school district year, the Ferris Police Reserves were directly paid three checks totaling $12,260 by the FISD.
The checks were for 'security at Varsity Football games,' 'security at JV and Jr. High games,' 'security at Volleyball games,' 'security at High School and Jr. High basketball games,' and 'security at new school.'
The invoices were computed at $80 per officer, with one to 10 officers at each game.
Cottongame said they were also paid for traffic control before and after school, but none of the copies of checks written and obtained through an open records request, reflect those charges.
The FISD issues checks to the City of Ferris (for School Safety Officer), to individual officers (for prom and graduation security), and to the Ferris Police Reserves.
Two of the reserve checks were endorsed and cashed by 'Jeff Cottongame.' The third was signed 'Ferris Police Dept.' and initialed by two signatures with the numbers #201 and #208 beside each signature. None of them were ever deposited.
'There is no paper trail on who made what,' said Holloway.
Cottongame said when the account was first set up, the department had a reserve program large enough to handle security, but now with only one reserve, off-duty officers handle the security.
He said the officers work the games and he cashes the checks and pays the officers who worked the games in cash. He said officers all across the state do the same thing.
He said, years ago, the city attorney told them if they were going to be at the games, they needed to be in full uniform, but the officers only use their own uniforms and weapons.
If an accident were to occur during the reserves' off-duty job, Cottongame admits the city would be liable because, 'we are there.'
'We didn't do anything without authorization,' said Cottongame.
Swafford said he wasn't aware there was a problem with the account.
'This had been the practice since before I came to work for the police department,' said Swafford.
The 18-year law enforcement veteran admitted he had signed the backs of the checks, cashed them and distributed the funds to officers who provided the security.
He said his and the chief's signatures weren't even on the bank account and neither had any knowledge that the city's bank federal identification number was on the account.
However, Swafford's signature was not on any of the canceled checks, but his initials were on one.
Using city equipment for ‘side' business
When off-duty Ferris officers provide security at football games, they also use Ferris police cars for crowd control.
Swafford said the mayor gave them permission to use the patrol cars for security at athletic events as a matter of safety.
However, Birdwell said he was not aware the officers were making 'side' money with city equipment.
'I had given them permission (to use patrol cars) to go to out of town games,' said Birdwell. 'I can't remember ever telling them they could take whatever they want.'
'I thought it was a courtesy to the school … I didn't know the PD was charging to that extent,' said Birdwell.
Swafford said no other equipment was used for the security; they wear their own uniforms and carry their private weapons.
The mayor said he first became aware of the activity in the reserve account when, in early July, he discovered a local man had written the Ferris Police Reserves a check.
The Ferris Police had provided fingerprinting, with city equipment, for the man's Concealed Handgun License and charged him $10, payable to the Ferris Police Reserves, according to Birdwell.
Police department computers and supplies were also used to bill Ferris ISD.
Birdwell said he will continue looking into it and will present it to the Ferris City Council to make a decision on setting some future policies.