Former Altoona sergeant defends overtime

Starr takes witness stand to explain work actions

HOLLIDAYSBURG — A former Altoona Police Department sergeant accused of theft, deceptive business practices, tampering with public records and other charges said Tuesday that his actions were based on common job-related practices and directives from other city employees.

Matthew S. Starr, 41, took the witness stand in his own defense and explained that his overtime hours typically reflected after-hours work. He said he, as well as any other officer, was permitted to claim four hours of overtime for any task lasting more than 15 minutes.

Starr also reported that like other department officers, he compiled compensatory hours and that gave him the option, with permission, of departing early from work.

“Would other officers supply the same kind of testimony?” Defense Attorney Robert Donaldson asked Starr on Tuesday afternoon before resting his case. Starr replied yes.

In an opening statement before Starr’s testimony, Donaldson told a Blair County jury that discrepancies involving work hours and pay rates are typically handled between an employer and an employee.

For the first 17 years he worked for the Altoona Police Department, Starr never had any infractions, Donaldson said.

But in March 2015, Starr was moved into a vacant position that put him in charge of the department’s bike patrol, community policing assignments, the coordination of special events and working with school patrols.

Starr said his work hours could easily vary and he often worked hours that he didn’t report on his time sheet.

“I guess you could call me a company man,” Starr said. “I was doing my job.”

When Altoona Police Chief Janice Freehling testified Monday, she acknowledged that Starr was among the department officers who accumulated larger amounts of overtime.

When Deputy Attorney General Megan Madaffari asked Freehling if she permitted Starr to leave early so he could go to the Rocky Gap Casino in Flintstone, Md., Freehling said no.

Starr also said he sometimes extended his work day with a four-hour overtime shift, in a way that allowed him to claim an hour of compensatory pay at the same time he was working an hour of overtime.

But when Madaffari asked Freehling on Monday if officers “can work regular hours and overtime at the same time?” Freehling said “No.”

The jury hearing Starr’s case is expected to begin deliberating today after attorneys offer their closing arguments.

State police at Hollidays­burg filed 10 felony charges against Starr, including theft of proceeds from an illegal act, deceptive business practices, tampering with public records, five counts of theft by deception, one count of attempted theft by deception and failure to make required deposits of funds.

The charges also reflect allegations that Starr, who had a side business selling tactical equipment, arranged for the city to buy a laser-based firearm training system for $7,654. While Starr described that as a good price, state police investigator Sgt. Matthew Bonin testified that he believed Starr acquired the basic system for $1,200.

Starr said he set up the sale through Outdoor City Guns after advising Mary Johnson of his plans to make those arrangements. He said Johnson told him it would be OK as long as Starr himself wasn’t involved in the transaction. Johnson, who testified Monday, said she told Starr that he could be involved in the sale.

But Starr sold the unit to Outdoor City Guns, which in turn received a check from the city for the unit.

Sgt. Bonin told the jury that he could find no one in the police department who was familiar with the unit later found in Starr’s police cruiser.

Bonin also testified that by securing access to Starr’s financial records and cellphone records, he learned that Starr was making regular trips to Rocky Gap Casino. Bonin also found that Starr had been soliciting and collecting donations for equipment on behalf of the police department.

Starr said he had Freehling’s blessing on his solicitation efforts to help the financially-strapped department.

But Bonin said that on the day of depositing a check or shortly thereafter, Starr could be tracked to Rocky Gap Casino where he made cash withdrawals.

Senior Judge Stewart Kurtz, who is presiding over the case, interjected his own question about that practice while Starr was on the witness stand.

“You deposited a check into your account, then you spent that money on the same day, at the same time as when you were at the casino?” Kurtz asked Starr.

Starr indicated that he had cash at home that he used to replace the withdrawn money.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.