A city employee recently promoted to manage Lakeland Electric’s McIntosh Power Plant lied about his academic and professional credentials, and once discovered fled the state, the Lakeland Police Department reported.
The engineer, John H. Bretz, is now in Polk County Jail after being taken into custody in Springfield, Ill. He was arrested under suspicion of felony fraud and criminal use of personal identification and extradited back to Polk County.
Bretz, who was first hired as a turbine maintenance engineer in March 2012, had been selected in June to lead the utility’s largest power plant.
The utility has reviewed work approved with Bretz’s engineering license stamp and has discovered no issues that will create a liability for the city or Lakeland Electric, city spokesman Kevin Cook told reporters at a news conference Wednesday.
The city says a background check performed as part of the promotion process by an outside company revealed Bretz, 53, did not have a bachelor’s degree or a legally earned Florida professional engineer license — requirements for the job he had been working.
He passed earlier background checks, when he was hired and with a promotion in 2013, according to the city; in those cases, he used fraudulent university transcripts and a fraudulent professional engineering license he managed to get assigned by the state, according to the city. The city, however, switched to an outside vendor to perform the checks in 2017.
It is likely Bretz also defrauded Illinois and his employer in that state, Cook said.
“It was learned as part of the verification that the credentials presented by Bretz were not authentic,” the city said in a news release. “The investigation revealed that Bretz had submitted fake transcripts upon his initial employment in 2012, purported to be from Southern Illinois University. These fake documents indicated he was awarded a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1990. Additionally, the fake transcripts were used to procure a state of Florida professional engineering license.”
While the background check was ongoing, the city’s human resource office received an email, supposedly from Mayor Bill Mutz, on Sept. 19, asking that the promotion process should be accelerated based on his “personal reference” for Bretz, the release said.
“Mutz was interviewed and confirmed that he did not generate the email, nor does he personally know John Bretz,” the release said. “Bretz later admitted to sending the email from a fake account that he created.”
In the false email, the writer wrote that “Mr. Bretz has completed two academic verifications for Lakeland, one before he began employment with the city, and again when he was promoted to McIntosh Power Plant Engineer Supervisor in 2013.”
“He had everybody fooled,” Lakeland Electric General Manager Joel Ivy said, including the state, which assigned him a professional engineering license based on allegedly false credentials.
Ivy said city and utility managers have discussed auditing professional credentials for essential positions, though has come to no conclusion.
To run new checks on all credentialed city employees would be cost prohibitive, Cook said.
But for critical roles, that’s something he would support, Ivy said. He said he doesn’t think there would be much pushback from employees to recheck their credentials in order to clear the air. No decision has been made.
Since being hired, Bretz has been paid earnings totaling $865,904.35 without legitimately possessing the minimum requirements, according to the city. The city reported that Bretz resigned from his position Oct. 8 during the investigation.
Interim Plant Manager Kevin Robinson will continue leading the plant as the city finds a permanent replacement. The plant was reorganized in 2017 to centralize operational authority following the catastrophic failure of its Unit 2. Bretz would have been the third manager to lead the plant since that reorganization.
Among the next manager’s major tasks will be seeing the power plant through the shuttering and replacement of Unit 3, a coal-fired generating unit that has been a foundation of Lakeland Electric’s power production since the early 1980s.
This story is updated from an earlier version with comments from city officials.