Baltimore worker paid double for months, getting $176k in salary she wasn't supposed to

If you discovered you were being overpaid by tens of thousands of dollars, would you say anything? That's what ABC2 Investigators are asking after discovering a Baltimore city employee was paid double, getting $176,000 in salary she wasn't supposed to get. It's a mistake we caught after a story we published last fall raised eyebrows in city government.

A press release from the Baltimore City Health Department trumpeted the arrival of Sarah Morris-Compton.  But they'd rather you didn't hear a word about her departure from the agency.

Morris-Compton was hired in 2011 as the Director of the Office of Policy and Planning. Her job was to manage the Health Department's "Healthy Baltimore 2015" campaign.  But in the end, the agency had to manage fallout from a story we published in October about her salary.

By Baltimore standards, you might consider Morris-Compton a high roller. She lives in Beverly Hills, not 9-0-2-1-0, but the neighborhood in the northeast part of the city. And in fiscal 2013, Morris-Compton was the third highest paid employee in Baltimore, falling behind only Baltimore City State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein and Finance Director Harry Black. The Baltimore Employee Salary Database shows she made $181,067.  The problem is, she was only supposed to make half that much. 

"It is alarming and my very first question was, ‘How many others are there?'," said City Councilman William Cole.

Cole is asking the same question we did after discovering Sarah Morris-Compton was paid double her $90,000 salary for two years, taking in $176,000 in salary she wasn't supposed to get. Cole says, "It's just like receiving a tax refund you're not entitled to or going to an ATM machine and asking for $100 and getting $500.  It's not your money. It's taxpayer money."

LINK: Baltimore City employee salary data

Health Department spokesman Michael Schwartzberg confirmed Morris-Compton was overpaid, saying the additional money was given in error.  The agency declined an on-camera interview.

Finance Director Harry Black also declined to speak on-camera.  But in an email, he told ABC2 Investigators it was a clerical mistake, saying, "The issue that occurred regarding increased pay to an employee at the Health Department was an incorrect assignment of employee type when setting up the person in the Human Resources Information System (HRIS)."

Black insists a thorough investigation of the salary database was conducted, with Morris-Compton the only employee found to have been double paid.  But the Finance Department didn't catch the mistake until our original story, and neither did the Health Department.

PDF LINK: Response from Harry Black

"I'm sure it's a lot harder when you're looking at 10,000 salary items to pick one out of a bunch and say that doesn't look right, but when you're at an agency and you're responsible for a couple hundred or less salary lines, you should be able to identify something that's completely out of whack," Councilman Cole said.

But for 26 months, Morris-Compton's salary went unquestioned.  Harry Black says since this issue was brought to light changes have been made to prevent an issue like this in the future.  Black tells ABC2 the audit report for the Central Payroll Division has been altered so staff can be alerted to potential problems in need of future research. 

In addition, he says the Department of Human Resources is also revising its manual to stress the importance of reviewing salary designations when an employee is added to the system and locked in. 

Longtime Baltimore employment attorney Neil Duke says Morris-Compton's situation is unusual.  He's handled hundreds of employment related cases after decades as an attorney and is also familiar with how city government functions after spending years as the chairman of the Baltimore City School Board.  As for how the city has handled this scenario, he says, "We can't go back and put the genie in the bottle but clearly there's a process now for rectifying what went wrong going forward."

Duke says Morris-Compton may have had no legal obligation to speak up as her pay piled up, but he believes she may have had a moral responsibility, considering her job was a public post with a specific salary that was published.

"You get caught with your hands in the cookie jar so to say, you're going to wind up giving those cookies back," Duke said.

And that's exactly what's happening.  ABC2 Investigators filed a Public Information Act request and obtained the settlement agreement reached two weeks ago between the city and Sarah Morris-Compton.  Her husband, Towson professor Dr. Darnell Morris-Compton, is also listed in the agreement.

PDF LINK: Sara Morris-Compton Settlement Agreement

That five-page agreement required that the couple make a $23,563 down payment within 10 days of signing the paperwork.  Black confirms that payment has been made.  Following the initial payment and a deduction for unused sick leave and comp time, the Morris-Compton's are left with $135,442 in required repayment to the city.  Beginning in March the couple will have to make a payment of $1875 every month for six years to fulfill the terms of the agreement, which indicates Sarah Morris-Compton won't be prosecuted.

"At this point it's more important the money gets paid back," Cole said, "It's tax dollars.  The money gets paid back and we put the steps in place as a city to ensure it doesn't happen again."       

Sarah Morris-Compton and her husband were contacted for direct comment at their home and by email, but they did not respond.

Their attorney, Annapolis-based Joyce Smithey, sent ABC2 Investigators a statement, saying, "The circumstances of Ms. Morris-Compton's salary were reviewed by the City, and it was determined that she had in fact been overpaid by the City in error.  Ms. Morris-Compton and the City promptly and proactively worked together to resolve the matter.  A settlement agreement has been reached, and the funds will be repaid to the City.  The agreement reflects mutual interest in repayment and no admission of fault from either party.  Ms. Morris-Compton resigned effective November 8, 2013."

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