Fire Chief Michael Grant has suspended two of his men for “conduct unbecoming a fire officer” and “conduct prejudicial to the good name of the department,” as taxpayers shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to pay for firefighters not to work.
Grant suspended firefighter Robert Crisco for 15 days and Lt. Felipe Cordero for nine days. He handed down the suspensions on Jan. 31.
Crisco was suspended in connection with an illegal-fireworks arrest last July, Cordero for an arrest in a domestic dispute, according to Grant. Both offenses occurred off duty. Crisco pleaded guilty and was sentenced on Jan. 9. Cordero had most of his charges dropped (with one nolle) in return for participating in a court-ordered violence-prevention program, according to his union president. (Cordero had a previous run-in with police in 2009.)
The fire chief has discretion to hand out suspensions of up to 15 days; longer suspensions need approval of the Board of Fire Commissioners.
Both suspended firefighters had been on paid administrative leave pending completion of internal investigations as well as of their court cases. Two more firefighters are currently on paid leave pending the outcome of court proceedings and internal investigations.
So far taxpayers have shelled out $180,732.48 combined for the four firefighters’ paid leaves, according to figures provided by the department. That doesn’t count money paid to firefighters who have worked overtime to cover their shifts while they have been out on leave.
Grant said he needed to know the outcomes of court proceedings before handing down punishment.
Fire union President Jimmy Kottage disagreed. He said the policy of putting accused firefighters on extended paid leave is running up big, unnecessary bills. He noted that taxpayers are footing the bill not only for the firefighters to stay home, but to have other firefighters fill their positions—sometimes at overtime rates. Firefighters start earning time-and-a-half pay after working 212 hours in a 28-day period, according to Assistant Fire Chief Pat Egan.
“This is a bad policy. This policy of putting individuals on administrative leave with pay harms the taxpayers, and it harms the individual firefighters,” Kottage said Friday.
“To pay for a position twice is ridiculous. It’s funny I’m saying that. Management should be saying that instead of the union guy! But it’s common sense. In the last year alone it has probably cost the taxpayers over $300,000. If you put a policy into place, it can cost pennies on the dollar.”
Grant said he was following advice he received years ago under a previous city corporation counsel: Until someone is found guilty of misbehavior, he can’t pull his salary.
“This was the legal advice that was given to me,” Grant said.
Grant said he didn’t want the firefighters out in the field interacting with the public before he got to the bottom of their off-duty behavior. “If you had a person whose credibility was in question, would you want them going into your house for instance on a call? No I wouldn’t. You just divorce them from the department. There’s not much work they can do beyond what they normally do. It’s not like we have an abundance of additional jobs.”
Unlike in some other city departments, Grant doesn’t have lots of desk jobs to go around in which to place people, he said.
Grant acknowledged that “this costs money. No question about it. I think there might be a better way of doing it. I’d like to see a better way of doing it.” The department is understaffed, with around 120 vacancies, leading to more overtime on filling shifts. “It’s expensive!” Grant said.
It’s doubly expensive, because two other firefighters have been on paid leave for months pending the outcome of investigations into their own off-duty arrests: Aaron Brantley and Lt. Tommy Michaels. Both have internal reviews and criminal cases pending. Police arrested Brantley a year ago on felony charges of attempting to bribe a witness; he denied the charges. Michaels was arrested in December for alleged domestic violence.
The bill to date for the four firefighters’ paid leaves, according to the department, breaks down this way:
• Brantley $80,299.07
• Michaels $13,207.74
• Crisco $39,689.34
• Cordero $47,536.33
Kottage (pictured) proposed a “better way”: Have the union and management agree to a process whereby arrested firefighters go on immediate suspension, then return to work.
What about the presumption of innocence? If a court later finds the firefighter not guilty, the suspension can be revisited, Kottage said.
“Deal with the situation head-on. If it’s a firefighter that needs to be disciplined for bad behavior, and he’s been arrested, well, deal with the bad behavior and deal with him,” Kottage argued. “There are ways the union and the city can put a policy together; then it’ll be contractual.”