The Arizona Attorney General’s Office has filed a civil action against former Sheriff Antonio Estrada and his second-in-command, Capt. Ruben Fuentes, seeking to recover nearly $200,000 in unworked overtime paid to Sheriff’s Office employees between 2013 and 2018.
However, the complaint filed Wednesday at Maricopa County Superior Court asks for more than just the $196,842 that the Arizona Auditor General said was paid out under the scheme from June 2013 through September 2018. The AG’s Office is also seeking triple damages under provisions of the Arizona Racketeering Act, which could put Estrada and Fuentes on the hook for nearly $600,000 in restitution and penalties, The Associated Press reported.
Douglas Clark, a Tucson-based attorney representing Estrada, called the complaint “absurd” and said he didn’t think Estrada would end up paying anything.
“It was nothing either Fuentes or Sheriff Estrada profited from,” Clark said. “Everybody knew about it, from the county manager on down. It was done for years, that was standard operating procedure, everybody approved of it.”
The conflict stems from a practice adopted by the Sheriff’s Office as a way to compensate employees who performed additional duties. According to the auditor’s report, employees were told by supervisors to claim an hour of overtime each day they performed duties beyond their pay grade.
While auditors only reviewed documents dating back to 2013, the AG’s complaint alleges that Estrada admitted to creating the practice in 2000, and that Fuentes admitted knowing the practice existed before he became a captain in 2007.
It also alleges that Estrada and Fuentes promoted two employees to lieutenant without prior approval from the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, as was required, and directed the two to report unworked overtime as compensation for their promotions.
According to the civil complaint, the so-called “overtime compensation scheme” came to an end in 2018 after a Sheriff’s Office employee filed a complaint with the county’s human resources director. County Manager Jennifer St. John learned about it in October 2018 and sent Estrada an email on Oct. 4, 2018, telling him to stop the practice.
However, the complaint says, Fuentes sent an email to several staffers the next day saying that Estrada “is asking that we proceed as usual until he gives us other instructions.” But the county began denying unworked overtime submitted on employee timesheets, and on Oct. 10, 2018, St. John reported the situation to the Arizona Auditor General’s Office.
The auditor completed its report and referred it to the AG’s Office on April 29, 2021, “for appropriate action.”
Estrada declined to comment when reached on Thursday afternoon, but Clark, his lawyer, said that that the case “seems like it’s pretty typical Nogales politics.”
The Sheriff’s Office is now under the command of Sheriff David Hathaway, who won the job in last November’s general election after Estrada decided not to run for an eighth term.
Fuentes stepped down just days after Hathaway took over, but the new sheriff praised Fuentes for his work and said he had not been “removed ‘for cause.’”