Manager of La Familia rec center demoted, re-promoted after accusations of nepotism, mismanagement

(Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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La Familia Family Center, Baker. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)  baker; la familia family center; denver; colorado; kevinjbeaty; denverite;

La Familia Recreation Center in Baker. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The former manager of La Familia recreation center in the Baker neighborhood has won an appeal and regained some of his rank following accusations of nepotism and mismanagement.

A hearing officer found that Jose Santistevan, Jr.’s two-level demotion was not supported by the evidence and that it was “disproportionate,” especially for a well-regarded 26-year employee. Santistevan also leads Denver Youth Sports.

How it started:

In 2016, the city investigated how Denver parks staff were managing the PLAY program, which provides affordable access to the city’s recreation programs.

The investigation found that several PLAY memberships had been given to “ineligible persons” at La Familia.

In one instance, Santistevan, then the senior supervisor of the facility, had asked an employee “if there was anything he could do for … a struggling college student who was dating (Santistevan’s) son,” according to testimony from the employee.

The employee then issued the young woman a PLAY membership without checking whether she was financially qualified. In another instance, the employee, Adam Haas, enrolled children related to Santistevan without checking their need, according to city findings. Santistevan later admitted to asking for help getting the young woman a pass, but he denied asking for a free pass for his sister’s kids.

“This was a department where we used to help people,” Haas, the employee, said in a city hearing.

Haas was demoted from supervisor to coordinator. Meanwhile, the city investigation continued. The city found that Santistevan’s log-in had been used to issue free rec-center passes to 47 ineligible people over 21 months. Those passes were meant only for low-income Medicare enrollees through Denver Health and are paid for by the Denver Health Medical Plan, according to parks spokeswoman Cyndi Karvaski.

Normally, annual passes at La Familia cost up to $224.

Santistevan also was accused of approving “excessive hours” for four relatives, including his sons and sister, who were working sporadically as sports officials. He said that he had permission from his supervisor to do so.

He also was accused of logging in and out of the Kronos timekeeping system for employees, which he said he only did for on-call employees because it was the only practical method.

John Martinez, deputy executive director for parks, ordered that Santistevan be demoted to “recreation coordinator,” the job Santistevan originally was hired for back in 1990.

The appeal:

On appeal, a city hearing officer overturned some of the findings that allowed for the demotion. She agreed that Santistevan could be seen as pressuring Haas to skip the rules for membership pass for the young woman, but said the city hadn’t proved the same in the case of Santistevan’s sister.

As for the 47 free passes: Santistevan admitted he had wrongfully issued passes to a city employee and her husband, but he said the rest had been issued by other employees using his credentials. He often leaves himself logged in because the system is basically a pain, according to testimony at the disciplinary hearing.

Apparently, that’s a widespread problem. Recreation director Thomas Herndon said that twelve other rec centers have problems with Denver Health memberships issued by employees under other workers’ log-ins.

Santistevan originally offered to pay back the 47 memberships, valued up to $17,000 because he felt responsible and feared he’d lose his job, he said in a hearing.

And on the nepotism accusation: The hearing officer found Santistevan really had gotten permission from his supervisor to indirectly supervise his relatives. They didn’t have the appropriate waivers, but Santistevan had never been trained in the new rules about that.

Their “excessive hours” – including numerous twenty-hour weeks – were dedicated to cleaning facilities and preparing for games, resulting in compliments from users, according to Santistevan’s supervisor. Santistevan testified that he gave the extra hours to anyone who could work them, as confirmed by his supervisor.

And about the timecards thing: Santistevan’s supervisor had said it was OK for Santistevan to enter the hours himself, as it really was the most effective way to get on-call sports officials paid. Martinez, the deputy parks director, also admitted that others had not been punished for the same practice, according to city records.

Altogether, the hearing officer found that Santistevan acted “at most out of negligence,” rather than dishonestly or unethically.

Santistevan now works as a recreation supervisor at an “alternate facility,” according to the parks spokeswoman, who said she could not put Denverite in contact with him.

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