As if it's not bad enough to have criminals impersonating Water Department employees and stealing from customers, a city watchdog says a few real Water Department workers in Philadelphia have been imitating criminals, with similar results.

It's not a new scheme. Someone falls two months or more behind on a water bill. A department worker is sent out to turn off the water. The worker offers to keep everything running, as long as some cash flows into his or her pocket.

Phyllis Valentino, a 41-year-old bartender at the Wachovia Center, is no easy target. In April 2006, a man from the Water Department got her out of bed at about 8:45 a.m. to tell her he was turning the water off at her home on Carlisle Street in South Philadelphia. She was $218 behind on her bill.

She saw his I.D., his shirt, his truck. "He was legit," she said. Water Department policy is that customers can avert a shutoff if they pay at least half their bill on the spot. Only checks or money orders are accepted.

The worker, later identified by the Inspector General's office as James DeStefano, said $100 in cash would take care of it. Valentino ran upstairs, grabbed her tips from the previous night's work, and forked the money over. She got a receipt that, she would discover later, had the "check or money order only" section hidden by Wite-Out.

Valentino looked for the credit on her bill. It never came. DeStefano, according to investigators, had pocketed the money and told his supervisors that he had shut the water off.

She and five others had similar experiences last year, Inspector General Seth Williams said. Some of those people, however, may have been willing participants in the deal - those who offer bribes to workers to keep their faucets running. He promised that he would pursue those people as well.

Williams said he received about a dozen complaints of this type a year - not a huge number. But Williams, whose predecessor completed an audit of the Water Department showing more than $100 million in outstanding bills at any one time, said that by that number alone, "We can extrapolate that it's a larger problem."

Water Commissioner Bernard Brunwasser - who has cooperated with Williams to catch wayward workers - said new technology made things much more difficult for the occasional "bad apple." Automatic meters at homes let supervisors see whether shutoffs have been performed, and criminal background checks on employees go a long way in weeding out bad workers.

DeStefano resigned last June when confronted with the results of the investigation showing he had pocketed $1,200. The District Attorney's Office declined to prosecute because witnesses had trouble picking DeStefano, who could not be located for comment this week, out of a lineup.

Williams said two more cases involving two other workers were currently being investigated. He would not comment on their specifics.

Brunwasser's department has been dealing with a more alarming problem recently - thieves disguised as city employees who then steal possessions from homes, sometimes assaulting residents in the process.

You Can Check

A few facts about the Philadelphia Water Department and how it operates:

Water Department employees rarely require access into homes, and all employees should have an I.D., a PWD shirt and a truck nearby. Anyone with doubts should call the department's hotline at 215-685-6300.

Water Department employees are not authorized to accept cash while out in the field, so never pay in cash. Anyone experiencing suspicious behavior by any city workers should call the Inspector General at 215-686-1770 or fill out complaints online at http://www.phila.gov/oig.

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