No changes made despite allegations of theft

March 7, 2011 10:10:17 PM PST
Twenty-nine Houston city workers are accused of stealing from the city at a time when its facing a multi-million dollar budget shortfall. While criminal charges are being discussed, the city says it hasn't yet implemented changes.

We know HPD investigators met with prosecutors on Monday at the DA's office to discuss possible criminal charges against the city employees accused of stealing copper from the city, which is a felony. Even though the city is well aware of how widespread the thefts are, a spokesman says the protocol at that department remains the same.

The perimeter at C & D Scrap Metal is like Fort Knox -- 24-hour rotating surveillance cameras, razor wire and even spikes that owner Dennis Laviage designed himself.

"I can't even get into my place of business without 21 locks," he said.

That's how aware he is that stealing to sell scrap, like copper and brass, is big business.

"When prices go up, the thieves go up," he said.

He's surprised it's been overlooked at the city for so long.

"If they're replacing it, where's the stuff they're replacing?" Laviage said. "It's gotta be going somewhere."

According to sources, as many as 29 employees within the city water department could lose their jobs for theft, and some of them clock in at the city's northwest service center.

Instead of bringing back copper or brass they've replaced on things like water meters and fire hydrants, sources say the workers would take it to the scrap yard to cash in. Sometimes, they'd even sell brand new metal from the city's supply.

It's believed it's been happening for years, costing the city tens of thousands of dollars.

City Councilman James Rodriguez agrees the investigation raises serious questions about accountability.

"We can always improve our oversight of employees. We can always make sure that our property is secure and so I'm sure there will be recommendations going forward and so we can always tighten up security," Rodriguez said.

But when and how? A spokesman for public works would only say "internal discussions are underway" to address the issue of oversight.

Laviage or a camera is always watching his inventory. As a taxpayer, he's disappointed the city wasn't watching better.

"You're talking about a lot of money there," Laviage said.

As of late Monday afternoon, all the accused employees were still on the job, still doing the same work.

HPD declined to comment on the investigation. We hope to hear from them as well as the city's public works department in the coming days.