After nearly three years, two Naples police officers who were initially fired after they submitted diploma-mill degrees to obtain pay increases are finally getting a hearing to fight the 10-day suspensions they received after they were subsequently reinstated to the force.
The arbitration hearing for Sgt. Joe Popka and officer Drew McGregor started Wednesday in a conference room on the second floor of Naples City Hall and is expected to wrap up today. The city presented its case Wednesday, while the officers and their union attorney will be making their case today.
However, no decision is expected by the hearing officer for two to three months, Naples Human Resources Director Denise Perez said.
"The issue is whether the 10-day suspension they received is warranted," Perez said. "That’s what is in dispute."
John Fry, an attorney for the Fraternal Order of Police union representing Popka and McGregor, said the FOP is spending more than $20,000 to defend the officers, and he estimates the city is spending considerably more than that.
"It’s a travesty," Fry said of the case.
Popka and McGregor were fired in July 2006 for submitting criminal justice degrees from Almeda University to qualify for the state’s salary incentive program, which boosts an officer’s pay by $80 a month. Almeda University offers online degrees for "life experience" that can be purchased for $595, but degrees from Almeda aren’t recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, the Council or Higher Education or the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
During the investigation both Popka and McGregor said they talked to department administrators before submitting the degrees to verify they qualified for the program.
The officers were reinstated to their jobs by then-City Manager Bob Lee after a three-month fight, though Lee gave them 10-day suspensions. Charges of improper conduct and exercising poor judgment were also sustained against them, and the officers were not satisfied with the positions they were assigned when they returned to duty.
Fry said the city failed to take several steps that could have prevented the entire case.
"Between the two of them, their 35 years (combined experience), not once have either had one scintilla of an issue before this," Fry said of the officers.