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Buffalo Fire administrator accused of tampering with her own payroll deductions

As a longtime payroll administrator, Jill M. Parisi had clearance to access Fire Department payroll records. She could, for example, make appropriate deduction changes when a firefighter went out on disability. She could even do it from the Fire Department computer at her South Buffalo home.

But recently, Parisi’s own payroll records were improperly changed.

Her Social Security/Medicare FICA deduction was twice temporarily reduced just in time for payday, resulting in Parisi’s take-home pay increasing by hundreds of dollars.

The first time, the city issued the bigger check.

The second time, the city Comptroller’s Office caught the improper change.

City officials soon determined that Parisi’s computer log-in information was used to reduce her FICA deduction.

Parisi, 49, a city employee for 22 years, was placed on paid administrative leave Feb. 2 from her $59,926-a-year senior administrative assistant job.

And following a more than week-long investigation into the deduction switching, the Brown administration filed disciplinary charges against Parisi on Friday. She was accused of basically hacking into payroll records to benefit herself. She was then placed on unpaid suspension while the case moves forward.

The city Comptroller’s Office, meanwhile, is trying to determine if a bigger problem exists in the Fire Department’s payroll unit.

“The department is now investigating whether or not there are any other improprieties,” Patrick J. Curry, executive assistant to Comptroller Mark J.F. Schroeder, said of the Audit and Control department Schroeder oversees.

Parisi, through her union representative, declined to comment earlier in the week on the advice of her AFSCME Local 650 attorney.

Michael F. Drennen, president of Local 650, also declined to comment when contacted in midweek. Neither Parisi nor Drennen was available for comment after the charges were filed Friday.

Michael J. DeGeorge, a spokesman for Mayor Byron W. Brown, and Fire Commissioner Garnell W. Whitfield Jr., also declined to comment on the case, citing standard policies not to discuss personnel issues or ongoing investigations. But Whitfield did say he doesn’t believe the continuing probe will uncover any larger payroll problems in the Fire Department.

“There’s no reason to believe there are any larger problems,” he said.

The Comptroller’s Office also declined to comment further on the case, but did say the discovery of Parisi’s payroll information was not tied to two audits of Fire Department operations that the Comptroller’s Office conducted over the past year at the Fire Department’s request.

One of those audits – currently being finalized, and not yet publicly released – addresses payroll procedures and overtime expenses in Fire Headquarters, where Parisi works.

A Buffalo News review of city payrolls found Parisi among the Fire Headquarters civilian administrative staff getting the most overtime payments in recent years.

In the current fiscal year, which runs from July 2015 through June 2016, Parisi so far earned $64,741 – including $36,555 in regular pay and $25,945 in overtime, according to city payroll records. That means, with almost five months left in the fiscal year and given her almost $60,000 annual base salary, she’s on a pace to earn upward of $100,000 in the current fiscal year as an administrative assistant for payroll.

In the 2014-2015 fiscal year, Parisi earned $82,732, including almost $26,000 in overtime, payroll records show.

The payroll records show one other Fire Headquarters civilian staffer with a base pay similar to that of Parisi. That employees averaged about $5,000 more in overtime than Parisi in each of the past few years, but a lesser amount so far this year.

Parisi began working for the city in 1994, initially at a clerical job in the Police Department before transferring to the Fire Department about 20 years ago.

By 2009, she was promoted to senior administrative assistant. Payroll records show she often earned $70,000 or more annually with overtime going back to 2006, when her base pay was just over $36,000. She has a reputation as a hard worker, The Buffalo News was told.

Parisi’s payroll information attracted attention in the city Comptroller’s Office Feb. 2. An Audit and Control employee noticed something odd with Parisi’s payroll information. Her withholding had been electronically lowered just prior to a paycheck being issued, then restored once the check was issued, and then lowered again before the next paycheck was to be issued.

And it wasn’t just her income tax withholding, but also her Social Security/Medicare FICA payments, which are not supposed to change.

Changes in income tax deductions wouldn’t necessarily be unusual or illegal. Employees routinely request adjustments in income tax withholding as their life circumstances change.

But FICA withholding is a standard, fixed rate, and cannot be adjusted at the employee’s request, said Jane Zanca, a spokeswoman for the Social Security Administration. Employees pay 1.45 percent of all earnings to Medicare, and 6.2 percent of earnings up to $116,500 annually to Social Security.

The city Comptroller’s Office issued Parisi the first paycheck with the lowered deductions in January, but restored the proper FICA deductions before the Feb. 2 check was issued, and also made Parisi repay the FICA payments that were shorted in the previous check.

With disciplinary charges filed Friday against Parisi, the clock now starts ticking on the disciplinary process. Parisi can be suspended without pay for 30 days. During that time, a meeting will be conducted to see if Parisi and the Brown administration can reach an agreement on what occurred and what, if any, discipline is warranted.

If they can’t agree, the case will likely go to binding arbitration, in which an arbitrator serves as judge and jury, deciding Parisi’s fate.

If the city believes any crimes were committed, it could separately refer the case to an appropriate law enforcement agency. Federal law states that intentionally submitting false Social Security/Medicare FICA tax information is a felony punishable by up to a $100,000 fine and three years in prison.