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13 Investigates: Florence leaders directed staff to use fraudulent COVID sick time

FLORENCE, Colo. (KRDO) -- Several current and former Florence city employees tell 13 Investigates they were forced to take off COVID sick time in 2020 when they were not ill.

The Interim City Manager of Florence says the sick time was taken by city employees in March 2020 to comply with federal public health guidance to limit the spread of the deadly virus.

However, 13 Investigates has spoken with several employees who tell a different story, alleging an attempted scheme to use federal money to help fix budget woes in the city. The City of Florence says there was no deficit in the budget that prompted the city to force its employees to use COVID sick time.

The employees also reveal when they actually became ill with COVID-19 in Fall 2020, they were originally told they didn't have COVID sick time to cover their leave. It wasn't until an employee sent an email with Department of Labor rules showing employers were required to provide COVID-19 leave, that employees were granted that sick time, according to city records.

The plan to use the COVID sick time was created by now-fired City Manager Mike Patterson, according to Finance Director Lori Cobler. Patterson was fired in August of 2021 and arrested on charges of stalking his female employees at city hall.

A year and a half before Patterson's firing, records show he directed department heads and staff to use as much as two weeks of COVID sick time even though they did not have the virus. Payroll records show the scheduled sick time was primarily taken off in April and May.

"Around that time, it was found that there was a $60,000 deficit in the budget that Mike and Lori hadn't planned on and budgeted in," former Florence court clerk Nicole Phillip said. "Then, the government announced the 80 hours for the Covid time for employees. So, Mike and Lori devised this plan that will let the government fix our budget and pay your guys' wages for two weeks."

Records show Colorado's Governor first issued stay-at-home orders in late March 2020. Those orders were extended through April 26, 2020, before Colorado moved into its "Safer at Home" phase amid the deadly pandemic.

13 Investigates reviewed records showing multiple city hall employees and police officers had scheduled time off under the COVID pay code between April and May 2020.

"Let's be real clear, were these people sick?" 13 Investigates asked.

"No," Phillips responded. "Nobody had been tested positive with COVID are showing any signs at that time."

Scheduling the COVID sick time for employees was a struggle for then Florence Deputy Chief Bill Vinelli. We spoke with Vinelli about the COVID sick time issues on the day of his resignation in February.

"At the time, I was doing scheduling, so it was very hard," Vinelli said. "There was almost every day we had officers working by themselves, 10-hour shifts."

Vinelli said it created a safety issue having police officers patrolling the streets with no backup officers.

"Were your employees sick when they took that time?" 13 Investigates asked.

"Nobody was sick," Vinelli said.

City officials say they did not receive reimbursement from the federal government for the fraudulent sick time taken by employees.

"The sick time in question was taken during March 2020 when the country was in the throes of responding to national government guidance, i.e. Dr. Fauci's suggestion that the entire country take two weeks off and stay at home in an attempt to stop/slow the virus. City employees were so instructed. Fremont County employees were also instructed," Florence Interim City Manager Tom Piltinsgrud said in a letter to 13 Investigates.

"Mr. Patterson wanted to minimize staff time of working together so he originally thought that he could use FFCRA funds for payroll or at least a tax credit to offset the expense of the reduction of staff time working together," Finance Director Lori Cobler wrote.

The city confirms Patterson, Cobler, and other employees were in a Florence City Hall office discussing how to schedule the time off.

Below is a portion of a secret recording of that conversation provided to 13 Investigates by an employee that was in the room. After 13 Investigates let the interim city manager hear the recording and sent a transcription to him and the city council, they confirmed the meeting took place at Florence City Hall in the Spring of 2020.

You can read the City of Florence's full explanation of how it used COVID sick time in early 2020 in these documents.

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Chelsea Brentzel

Chelsea is the Assistant News Director for KRDO NewsChannel 13. Learn more about Chelsea here.


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