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St. Paul Park's Flandrich cleared of union 'sabotage' claims

A criminal investigation into St. Paul Park Public Works Supervisor Lee Flandrich was dismissed after police and the city attorney concluded that a claim alleging Flandrich intentionally sabotaged the work truck of two of his employees was unfounded. (Bulletin file photo)

A criminal investigation into a St. Paul Park Public Works supervisor was dismissed after police and the city attorney concluded that a claim alleging Lee Flandrich intentionally sabotaged the work truck of two of his employees was unfounded.

In April, the city quietly dealt with a complaint filed against Flandrich, the longtime public works supervisor for St. Paul Park, on behalf of two workers in his department. The complaint alleged repeated employee harassment, stalking and surveillance and "deliberate sabotage" of a city Jet Vac truck.

Documents recently obtained by the Bulletin detail the investigation conducted by the city of St. Paul Park into claims made by city employees Nick Waldbillig and Jeff Domagala.

According to initial correspondence between business representative Cory Bergerson of International Union of Operating Engineers and City Administrator Kevin Walsh, Bergerson wrote that on April 4 "between 11:50 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. the city's vactor truck was tampered with while the employees were on their lunch break" and they "found the hose inserted in the axle."

A vactor truck flushes and cleans sewers by using pressurized water stored in a basin attached to the vehicle.

The incident, Waldbillig and Domagala told Bergerson, was the culmination of repeated harassment and retaliation for a grievance filed against Flandrich two weeks prior.

Flandrich said in a recent interview that he had cited Waldbillig and Domagala for using their cellphones during work hours and confirmed that a grievance was filed challenging the citation.

On the afternoon of April 4, Flandrich said he observed the vactor truck, which was signed out by Waldbillig and Domagala, parked in front of a fire hydrant near the Northern Tier Energy refinery, which at the time was in the process of an equipment turn-around, prompting him to document the infraction.

Flandrich said he sent Assistance Public Works Supervisor Brian Rumpca to the scene to take photographs. Rumpca confirmed in a police report that he did take a picture of the vehicle and a picture of the empty key ignition inside the truck cab.

When questioned by St. Paul Park Police Sgt. Randy Otto, Bergerson said Flandrich's alleged "deliberate sabotage" of the city's vactor truck was "absolutely" retaliation against Waldbillig and Domagala for filing a grievance two weeks prior.

Investigation finds inconsistencies

Once criminal allegations were filed with police, the department launched an investigation, which started with surveillance footage obtained from Northern Tier Energy. Refinery security officer Ramon Flores, who was assigned at the gate near the city truck the day of the incident, confirmed to police that "a bald male" drove up to the city truck. Flores said he did not see the male touch any part of the truck except the driver's door. Otto asked Flores if he noticed any suspicious activity or if the unidentified male tampered with the vehicle, to which Flores responded that something of that nature would have caught his eye.

It wasn't long after Otto opened the investigation that he began discovering differentiating stories, according to the case documents.

Waldbillig initially told Otto that after he returned to the vehicle from his lunch break, he stated the loop of the hose on the back portion of the water holding tank had been removed and the loop "was slipped over and up against" the rear tires horizontally. Waldbillig also described the hose as "kicked in" between the tandem tires. In the police report, Otto noted that the previous statement was not present in the written dissertation as read by Bergerson earlier in the investigation.

Otto documented Bergerson often read word-for-word from his notes during the preliminary interview and was quoted saying "the way it was explained to me from Nick, (the hose) was laying in front of the tire where it would catch the truck if you pulled forward and rip the hose off the back of the truck."

Otto noted that it did not sound as if the hose was, in fact, wrapped around the axle, to which Bergerson responded, "OK, up against the rear tires."

During another interview approximately two weeks later, Waldbillig told Otto that "the hose was drug off over top of the tank" and denied the hose being wrapped around the axle, contradicting the statement made by Bergerson in the original letter to the city. The police report said Waldbillig said "I don't believe I told (Bergerson) it was wrapped around the axle. I believe I told him it was leaned up against the rear duals."

When Otto asked Bergerson again about the phrase "unlooped and setting up against the rear tires," Bergerson confirmed that is what Waldbillig typed in his statement, adding that he sent the original letter to the city prior to receiving Waldbillig's official statement.

"I think (the letter) would have been different wording," Bergerson told Otto.

The Bulletin contacted Bergerson, but he declined to comment. Waldbillig and Domagala did not return Bulletin calls for comment.

Allegations unfounded

The investigation finished in early May when the St. Paul Park Police Department submitted a 27-page report with photos and diagrams. City Attorney Jim Shiely reviewed the information, and in a May 17 letter to Police Chief Mike Monahan Shiely wrote "there is no evidence that Lee Flandrich tampered with the hose on the vac truck."

Shiely added that the wording of Bergerson's original letter to the city, specifically the line describing the hose "inserted in the axle," was disproved by Otto's investigation.

"I think the majority of this stemmed from the union and it sounded like the employees reported something and (Bergerson) ran with it without getting more information," City Administrator Kevin Walsh said, adding that Bergerson "fabricated some of that information and put details in the report that the employees didn't report."

Cleared of the allegations, Flandrich said the investigation has been a dark cloud over his department. He talked about the case because he said doing so will dispel rumors he has heard about the allegations.

"This whole ordeal has bothered me immensely," he said. "These employees took the proverbial shot at the boss and it didn't work out. I am taking this on a personal level and I'm taking this very seriously."

During the roughly five-week investigation, the matter was never brought before the City Council for discussion, a fact Flandrich said was disappointing.

"The city was made aware of the investigation, but because there were criminal accusations, as with any criminal investigation, it was turned over to the police," Walsh said. "The council didn't need to take action on this. It's like asking the city to vote on an investigation for a (driving while intoxicated charge). It was the responsibility of the police, not the City Council."

While the findings of the investigation are in his favor, Flandrich said the allegations defamed his credibility and the public works department's image.

"Why isn't anything being done about this?" Flandrich asked, stating no corrective action has been taken. "If that was you being accused of criminal activity, what would you be thinking?"

In a letter to M. William O'Brien, attorney representing the IUOE, legal support staff for the city indicated that the "unsupported accusations seriously undermine the credibility of the business representative and the organization he represents."

Walsh said he agreed with that view.

"I think the (business representative) is more at fault than anyone," Walsh said.

However, while Shiely said it would be doubtful if any charges against either the union or Waldbillig and Domagala will be filed, Walsh said the city will continue to look into the matter.

With plans to retire at the end of October, Flandrich said he will continue to serve the citizens of St. Paul Park for the remainder of his tenure.

"We have a motto in the department: you don't leave a mess for someone else to clean up," he said.