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Emanuel: Firing won’t solve Fire Prevention Bureau corruption

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Updated: November 14, 2011 12:18AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel vowed Wednesday to root out the “systemic, cultural” problem that has caused constant corruption in the Chicago’s Fire Prevention Bureau, arguing that it’s not as simple as terminating 54 firefighters accused of padding mileage expenses.

“It’s clear that this has a history, meaning it’s repetitive. I feel—reading what I read today—like it’s Ground Hog Day. It’s not just a personnel issue. It’s a cultural issue. And I’ve directed [Fire] Commisioner Hoff to deal with it—roots and all,” Emanuel said.

“I don’t want to just say, ‘These people are responsible,’ because there’s a culture if you have a repetitive problem. That is what I want to get to.”

Emanuel said he has “zero tolerance” for waste, fraud and corruption of any kind. But he’s also “caught between a rock and a hard place.”

In a “perfect, ideal world,” he could fire the 54 firefighters accused of padding their mileage expenses—to the tune of $100,000 in 2009 alone.

But in the real world, a grievance process required by the firefighters union contract would allow the fired firefighters to challenge their terminations. And the “cultural” problem that has caused the Fire Prevention Bureau to be a constant source of controversy would remain.

“If. . .all 54 got fired for the collective $100,000 in mistakes, through that process that takes close to ten months, you could end up costing us more than the $100,000 of the original violation,” Emanuel said.

“That where we’re caught. . .between a rock and a hard place. . .I’ve talked to the commissioner about dealing with this systemically, culturally and then, if we need to, on a personnel basis.”

The Chicago Sun-Times reported this week that Inspector General Joe Ferguson is recommending the termination of 54 firefighters—half the staff of the Chicago Fire Department’s Fire Prevention Bureau--for allegedly falsifying mileage used to reimburse them for driving their personal vehicles to inspections.

The alleged fraud cost $100,000 in 2009 alone.

Confronted with evidence from GPS-equipped cell phones that have tracked their movements since a 2007 scandal, sources said several firefighters acknowledged padding their mileage expenses, in some cases for their entire careers.

The worst offenders allegedly worked backward from a monthly cap and falsified their mileage to justify claiming the maximum.

Sources said Ferguson is recommending that Emanuel use the mass firings as an opportunity to fold the Fire Prevention Bureau’s inspection functions into the Building Department.

Fire Commissioner Robert Hoff has promised “swift and precise” discipline for the offenders in accordance with the collective bargaining agreement.

He has already demoted Nick Russell, deputy commissioner of the Fire Prevention Bureau, and Sal Marquez, the deputy chief who works under him, for exercising lax supervision.

Tom Ryan, president of the Chicago Firefighters Union Local, lashed out at Ferguson for recommending that the Fire Prevention Bureau’s inspection functions be absorbed by the Building Department.

“The work done by the Fire Prevention Bureau is critical to the safety of our first responders and the community at-large,” Ryan said in a statement.

“These inspectors are our advance team, providing critical reports and hazard warnings for the buildings we are rushing into. For the inspector general, who has no training in fire safety, to make such a flippant recommendation is irresponsible and puts lives at risk.”

The Fire Prevention Bureau has been a steady source of controversy over the years.

In October, 2007, then-Fire Commissioner Ray Orozco launched an internal investigation of the bureau, put all 100 inspectors on a shorter leash and ordered them to carry GPS-equipped cell phones to track their movements after a TV station caught an inspector conducting personal business on city time.

One year later, eight inspectors were fired and two others retired, after being accused of accepting or facilitating cash payments of several hundred dollars in exchange for making weekend pump inspectors at high-rises.

Last week, Emanuel vowed to make the tough choices Chicago has avoided for a decade—without raising taxes, cutting police or using one-time revenues—to erase a $635.7 million budget shortfall.

The latest scandal in the Fire Prevention Bureau could play right into his hands — by making it easier for the mayor to cut the Fire Department’s previously sacrosanct $526.5 million-a-year budget.

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