2 Firefighters Suspended; Public Pays Twice

Thomas MacMillan PhotoFire 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

Thomas MacMillan PhotoKottage (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.”

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posted by: robn on February 14, 2014  10:55pm

The suspension of Crisco and Brantley I can understand because their alleged acts are related to their work (illegal fireworks and departmental fraud). If these two are guilty, their pay during suspension should be recouped by the city. The other two allegedly did things unrelated to work (domestic violence) and if that’s not obviously affecting their work why should they be suspended at all?

posted by: nadir1876 on February 15, 2014  3:40pm

Leadership is sorely missing in many of our city departments. Mayor Harp will have to address the challenges associated with disconnected departments as no suspensions should occur without some input from legal counsel. If department heads get bad legal advice, then we should hold Corporation Counsel responsible. If they allow problems to fester in their departments, the specific department head should be sanctioned. We need strong leadership now more than ever. There is so much waste simply based on inept leadership. The public is waiting and watching for pragmatic and consistent leadership that places the needs of our City ahead of personal agendas. I am dumbfounded at the poor decision-making that permeates politics in every corner of the world. Where is practical wisdom and personal responsibility in all this?

posted by: HewNaven on February 16, 2014  11:23am

Brantley turned himself in over a year ago. Has there been any development in his case since then? Why is it taking so long?


posted by: Elm City Lifer on February 16, 2014  8:42pm

Hasn’t this guy been Fire Chief for a real long time.he got advice from a previous corporation counsel.hasnt bolden been here for 5 or 6 years. Did he read all those articles about the cops who fired their guns a the bar.they were told to on leave with no pay or go before the police commissioners. 2 took the no pay the other didn’t and he was fired long before anything in court happened.you don’t need the union president Kottage to agree to anything.just do your job as chief like they did in the police department.

It seems like the biggest expense in the fire department is the Chiefs incompetence. Maybe it’s time for him to be put out on some unpaid leave. FOREVER!!!