Mason’s former police chief and a former police officer were indicted this week in Tipton County for falsifying timesheets and, effectively, committing payroll theft.
Vatisha Barken, who led the department for a year, and Samuel Sutton, who worked for her, were charged with official misconduct. Sutton was also charged with theft under $10,000.
The pair was indicted in Fayette County in March, both charged with theft over $10,000, one count of official misconduct, and one count of false entry in governmental records.
“Local officials must ensure they carefully review timesheets to be certain that employees are actually working for the hours they claim,” said Comptroller Jason Mumpower in a press release in March. “By asking questions and validating information, local governments can reduce the risk of improper payroll payments.”
In July 2020, when Leader reported her resignation, it was noted that both Barken and Sutton were employed by the Mason and Gallaway police departments. Though there was nothing prohibiting their employment for both departments, many residents and elected officials in Mason reported they were patrolling Mason in cars marked for Gallaway.
There were questions about the hours in which she was in service in Mason. During an investigation started just before her departure, The Leader obtained records from Tipton County E-911 in which Barken notified dispatchers she was in service – which is the process through which officers check in and out with dispatchers to let them know they’re on duty – for approximately 23 hours for the last six months she was employed there. In fact, she clocked 32 minutes on Jan. 13, 2020, 1 hour and 47 minutes on Feb. 21, 5 hours and 49 minutes on Feb. 22, 6 hours and 32 minutes on Feb. 27, 5 hours and 31 minutes on May 22, and a cumulative 2 hour and 50 minutes over two check-ins on May 27.
As chief, Barken didn’t necessarily have to check in, however most chiefs do.
The comptroller’s office said “Barken submitted 68 timesheets showing she worked 107.75 hours simultaneously for Mason and Gallaway and was thus able to obtain $2,090.35 in improper payroll compensation.”
Barken quit during a city meeting in May 2020 and notified her officers via text message she’d resigned. Mason’s elected officials were also investigating to determine if she was being truthful about the hours she was reportedly working. There was similar concern about Sutton.
One person, who was an alderman at the time, told The Leader, “We’re paying for hours we believe they’re in Gallaway.”
During one of her last pay periods she was reportedly paid for working 40 hours when she’d in fact worked 11-17 for an entire month.
“We paid her $3,400 for less than 40 hours of work.”
Elected officials shared their information with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the comptroller’s office also investigated the matter.
The comptroller’s office said investigators determined that Barken and Sutton falsified their timesheets and wrongfully obtained wages and/or salary and benefits from both Mason and Gallaway. Barken obtained a total of $14,933.66, and Sutton received a total of $20,568.42 in wrongful compensation.
It was revealed that Barken and Sutton submitted timesheets reflecting they were working for both Mason and Gallaway at the same time; that they ended one shift and started another in a different town in the same minute, despite the towns being eight miles away; and submitted timesheets reflecting hours worked when they had not reported they were in-service to either Fayette or Tipton County dispatchers.
The investigative report also notes unauthorized use of Gallaway and Mason police vehicles by Barken and Sutton; and it describes how Sutton had his personal vehicle towed to his personal residence in June 2020 and had the $85 towing fee billed to the Gallaway Police Department.
Additionally, investigators are questioning the legitimacy of the remaining salaries and benefits paid to Barken and Sutton from January 2019 through July 2020 due to a variety of oddities and practices noted in the report.
This is not Mason’s first time dealing with payroll theft. In 2016, the former public works superintendent was indicted for receiving more than $600,000 in unapproved overtime and paid time off over the course of seven years.
As chief, Barken maintained a website for the police department in which she said the department served the public with PRIDE as a core value. The acronym stood for professionalism, respect, integrity, dignity, and effectiveness, and being “accountable to the highest standards of professional and ethical conduct” was at the top of their priorities.
In June 2020, Barken forwarded resignation letters to The Leader and the sheriff’s office calling the board members ignorant and airing grievances with lack of training and equipment. She was also formally terminated by the board.
She resigned from her position as a lieutenant with the Gallaway department on June 15, 2020. Sutton was terminated from Gallaway on July 15, 2020 and from Mason on July 20, 2020.
Barken was the first woman and the first Black woman to hold the title of police chief in both Mason and in Tipton County.
To read more about the investigation, see the report here.
They were booked into the Tipton County Jail on Monday, both being released on bond within about 20 minutes. They are set to appear in Tipton County Circuit Court in early August.