Jim Dey: City retiree dragged into Prussing-Walden feud
Considering that he's collateral damage, Ron Eldridge still gets around pretty well.
On Wednesday, the now-retired Urbana finance director was fit enough to make it to the Champaign County courtroom of Circuit Judge Thomas Difanis and listen to allegations that he conspired with a co-worker to embezzle more than $32,000 from the city.
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The 63-year-old Eldridge declined to say what he thinks of the charges. But his lawyer, Steve Beckett, was happy to speak for his client. "To say he's disappointed would be an understatement," said Beckett. "He was a well-respected employee of the City of Urbana and left on great terms with everybody. Now this case reaches out and grabs him in about as disgusting a manner as you can imagine."
"This case" is Walden vs. the City of Urbana, the legal battle that started last summer when Mayor Laurel Prussing declined to reappoint Liz Walden as an accounting supervisor in the finance department. Walden subsequently filed a lawsuit challenging the dismissal on the grounds that her job is protected by civil service rules and that she was dismissed without cause or a hearing.
The lawsuit, which has been bouncing through the courts ever since, is tentatively scheduled to go to trial Nov. 3.
This week, the key witnesses — Walden, Prussing and city personnel manager Vacellia Clark — are scheduled to be deposed.
But Prussing recently tossed a grenade into the midst of already contentious litigation when the city sought to file a counter-suit that alleged Walden "conspired with former comptroller (Eldridge) to misappropriate funds" of $32,207.
Lawyers from the St. Louis-based Lowenbaum Parnership argued that Eldridge is a "necessary and indispensable party" to the litigation.
Circuit Judge Thomas Difanis rejected that request to include Eldridge or the issue of the alleged misappropriation of funds in the dispute over the dismissal. But he said the city's lawyers are free to file a separate lawsuit seeking damages, and Mayor Prussing said that is "what we're going to do."
"We think these are pretty serious charges that amount of embezzlement from the city and a significant amount of money," Prussing told WDWS radio. "I think it deserves to have a day in court."
So the litigation has metastasized into a second dispute, the first involving the legality of Walden's forced separation from the city and a second prospective lawsuit involving the alleged embezzlement.
In a nutshell, the city is alleging the embezzlement involved Eldridge and Walden taking compensatory time off to which they, as management employees, were not entitled.
"We are saying it's a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act and a violation of city policy," said Prussing, who declined to discuss the matter further and referred inquirers to the legal filings.
"I certainly deny that," said Beckett, who indicated that a "custom and practice" of compensatory time off for management employees "has existed for years" at the city.
He stated that Prussing has "knowledge of comp time" for management employees and characterized the claim as "window dressing in a pending civil case that my client is not a party to."
The city's counter-claim alleges that Walden received $4,164 and Eldridge $28,042 in undeserved compensation as a consequence of comp time machinations.
The city alleges that beginning "no later than January 2006," Walden "kept a running record of compensatory time which she and other exempt employees in the finance department incurred and expended, even though she and those individuals were not entitled to accrue and use compensatory time." The city alleges time off taken by Walden and Eldridge should have been subtracted from their vacation and sick time and that Walden's "unlawful manipulation of the city's payroll records" allowed both her and Eldridge to misappropriate funds.
Walden's lawyer, Glenn Stanko, has rejected those allegations, saying that his client followed well-known practices in city government.
The dispute over Walden's dismissal grows out of a long-running personal feud between the Waldens and Prussing. In 2007, two years after being elected to her first term as mayor, Prussing dismissed Bruce Walden, Liz Walden's husband, from his long-held position as the city's administrative officer. Prussing has denied that any personal animosity was behind the dismissal, that it was prompted by inappropriate dealings on Walden's behalf. But the dismissal fed into the commonly held view that Walden, who worked under Republican Mayor Jeffrey Markland and Democratic Mayor and Prussing foe Tod Satterthwaite, was a marked man once Prussing took office.
Bruce Walden now works for the University of Illinois.
As a low-level city employee hired in 1989, Liz Walden remained on the city payroll. She was promoted to an accounting supervisor's post in 1992. Walden's lawyer insists that she continued to hold a civil service position because the city's Civil Service Commission never reclassified her position as "exempt" and subject to annual reappointment by the mayor.
In 2009, the city first included Liz Walden on the mayor's reappointment list, and she was repeatedly reappointed until the summer of 2013. The city's lawyers contend that Walden was well aware her status had changed but took "no affirmative steps" to clarify the situation.
Despite allegations of what amounts to criminal behavior by Eldridge and Walden, there is no investigation pending. Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz said all she knows about the matter is what she has seen in the news and that "my office is not aware of nor involved in any investigation into any aspect of this dispute."
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 351-5369.