DENIED NO MORE: KXAN investigation prompts city to pay APD officers’ full sick time

Investigations

Investigative Summary:

This KXAN investigation prompted the city of Austin to pay police officers the sick pay they were denied in 2018. The issue was brought to light by the widow of Detective Norman Bujanos, who lost out on $29,000 after he died from a disease caused by a popular medication he took.

Developments

  • The city of Austin has agreed to pay out the full sick time for three Austin police officers who left in good standing in 2018 while the Austin Police Department was operating without a contract, including Detective Norman Bujanos. The city initially said five officers would receive it but later clarified after realizing two officers did not meet the criteria.
  • In a statement to KXAN Tuesday, Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk said the way the city handled sick leave hours during the APD period of no contract “was neither fair for those officers nor in the City’s long term best interests.”
  • The city plans to pay out the denied sick time in supplemental payments.

ORIGINAL STORY:

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Amy Bujanos should be on the verge of celebrating 20 years of marriage next month with her husband, Norman.

Amy and Normal Bujanos on their wedding day (Bujanos Family Photo)
Amy and Norman Bujanos on their wedding day (Bujanos Family Photo)

But it’s been 15 months since Norman, an Austin Police Detective, died.

Every day Amy, and daughter Jordyn, live with that reality. But, they also have to contend with another challenge: being denied tens of thousands of dollars of his earned sick pay.

In November, KXAN reported on Det. Norman Bujanos’ death after being prescribed a common medication used to treat depression and seizures. Norman died in the hospital of what doctors determined was a rare side effect to the bipolar drug — Lamotrigine — which he had just started taking to get his mental health back on track after years of police work and public perception of officers took its toll.

Following his funeral, which APD planned and paid for, Amy went to pick up Norman’s final paycheck. She noticed Norman was denied 623 hours of sick time — which meant she and Jordyn would never see at least $29,000.

“And, so I had asked why we didn’t get paid that, and the city said, ‘We’re not under contract and so we couldn’t. That’s what the deal is,'” Amy recalled.

The Bujanos family at the 2015 APD awards banquet (Bujanos Family Photo)
The Bujanos family at the 2015 APD awards banquet (Bujanos Family Photo)

For almost a year, APD operated without a contract with the city. It was prompted by the Austin City Council rejecting a new contract in December 2017, which they had already been negotiating for months. The council did not approve a new contract until November 2018 — less than a month after Norman died. The gap affected many things, including sick pay for officers.

Under the normal contract, officers can get paid for up to 1700 hours of accumulated sick time. But during the “no contract” period, officers who retired, resigned or died were cut off at 900 hours, no matter how many more they accumulated. Norman was the only officer who died during that period.

Amy emailed Chief Brian Manley to see if he could make an exception because of the years Norman dedicated his life to the department and because she said the job is what brought on his mental illness. She did not hear back. Once KXAN brought it to his attention, Chief Manley called Amy to apologize, and said he never saw the email. He told Amy he checked back with the city attorney, and the answer was still “no.”

Chief Manley told KXAN he was not sure how many officers were denied sick pay during the period of time in question, but said it was not very many.

Through a public records request, we’ve since learned nine officers, including Chief Manley and former Assistant Chief Frank Dixon were impacted.

Dixon, who left to become the chief of police in Denton, told KXAN, “Taking care of Norman’s family is obviously number one.”

Antonius Vanboekhout, another one of the affected officers who retired during the no-contract period, said he felt like he and others were “left in the dirt” during that time.

“I am 100% so disgusted — so disgusted that this widow is not getting her 600-something hours,” said Vanboekhout, who now lives in Georgetown and does security for Ascension. “And, everybody should be.”

Two officers received full sick payout

KXAN also discovered two of the officers on the list — Chief Manley and Asst. Chief Chris McIlvain — were eventually offered their full sick payout, because they were both rehired by the city of Austin.

Manley, who had to technically retire during the period without a contract so he could be promoted to Austin’s chief of police, said he was able to negotiate into his new contract with the city a clause that stated he would receive the rest of what he was owed beyond the 900 hours, once a new contract was signed — and would get what every other officer was getting at that point. Manley told KXAN he received a check covering the additional 800 hours he earned. The city did not give Norman’s family that option.

As for McIlvain who retired from APD to take the position of Director of Safety and Security at the Austin Convention Center, a media relations manager with the city said he believes the former assistant chief was offered his full sick payout. The city is still trying to figure out if he was actually paid. McIlvain has not responded to multiple calls by KXAN.

The decision lies with the city manager

Chief Manley said the city manager is the only one with the power to override the city attorney’s decision when it comes to the sick pay issue. KXAN first reached out for an interview with Spencer Cronk on Jan. 2. His office responded last week saying his calendar was book three to five weeks out.

In a prepared statement Monday, the city said, “City Management is aware of the matter and is currently looking into the situation.”

Mayor Steve Adler told KXAN he is awaiting the city manager’s review, which is “currently underway.”

Ken Casaday, President of the Austin Police Association, said in a statement that the association is in “full total support” of the Bujanos family.

“The tragedy of Norman’s passing during the contract dispute should not be held over the heads of Amy and her family,” Casaday said.

KXAN also reached out to every Austin city council member. Only one responded. City Councilwoman Natasha Harper-Madison, who represents District 1, spoke frankly about what happened to Norman and the aftermath. Her husband is an Austin firefighter.

“A human being should be able to recognize that this is an exception — this is extraordinary,” she said. “This is a situation where this gentleman put his life on the line to do the job and he’s got a wife and a daughter that we as a municipality have an obligation to care for.”

Amy is hoping for that exception.

“He was trying to save his hours for retirement and he didn’t have that chance because he’s not here. He earned all that time,” Amy said. “He was really devoted to this job and to the city. I know he would be angry at the whole situation.”

Photojournalist Chris Nelson, Photojournalist Ben Friberg, Investigative Producer Anthony Cave, Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Digital Executive Producer Kate Winkle and Producer Rick Taylor contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Austin-Travis County

More Austin-Travis County News

More Investigations

More Investigations

Latest Central Texas COVID-19 Cases

More Coronavirus Live Blogs

Trending Stories

Don't Miss