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Arbitrator: Mileage padding ‘almost a work rule’ in fire prevention unit

80th Annual Memorial Day Mass Holy Family Church 1080 W. Roosevelt Road honoring deceased members Chicago Fire Department  Sunday

80th Annual Memorial Day Mass at Holy Family Church, 1080 W. Roosevelt Road honoring deceased members of Chicago Fire Department, Sunday, May 28, 2012. | John H. White~Chicago Sun-Times.

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Updated: July 6, 2012 9:46AM

Padding mileage expenses was so entrenched and condoned in Chicago’s Fire Prevention Bureau, it was “almost a work rule,” an arbitrator ruled Thursday, overturning the city’s firing of four firefighters and reducing lengthy suspensions for 44 others.

Independent arbitrator Edwin H. Benn said there is “no real dispute” that all of the accused Chicago firefighters “knowingly submitted inaccurate mileage reimbursement reports and obtained compensation for mileage — ranging in some cases into the thousands of dollars — that they did not actually incur.”

But, Benn noted that the alleged mileage padding was a “decades-long practice” that was taught, “condoned and encouraged by supervisors.” In fact, Benn noted that many of the inspectors were “assured by their supervisors that the accuracy of their mileage totals would not be challenged.”

As a result, the arbitrator wrote, “It is fair to conclude that the condonation and supervisory encouragement of employees to submit the maximum amount allowable for mileage reimbursement instead of submitting actual mileage expenses incurred was so deep, long-standing and pervasive that it went beyond condonation to rise to the level of becoming almost a work rule” in the Fire Prevention Bureau.

Although the charges are serious and might otherwise warrant firings and even longer suspensions, Benn wrote, “The amount of discipline imposed under these circumstances cannot be of a degree that should be imposed if condonation and encouragement at this level did not exist.”

In a 30-page ruling issued Thursday, Benn: reinstated four fired firefighters and ordered them to serve 40-day suspensions instead; reduced four 60-day suspensions to 40 days; cut 23 forty-five-day suspensions to 25 days; reduced 17 thirty-day suspensions to 20 days and allowed two supervisors who resigned to rescind their resignations. The captain was ordered to serve a 40-day suspension. The lieutenant was handed 25 unpaid days off.

Back pay to all must be paid with interest and reinstatements must occur with full seniority.

“We’re happy that those who were disciplined were vindicated and we can put this issue behind us and move on,” said Tom Ryan, president of the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2.

Benn also unloaded on Inspector General Joe Ferguson, who investigated the Fire Prevention Bureau and urged the city to fire all 54 of the accused firefighters, only to be overruled by then Fire Commissioner Robert Hoff.

“Anyone with any labor relations experience can only wince when reading the IGO’s recommendations. … Whether intended or not, the IGO’s draconian disciplinary recommendations in this case demean and denigrate the [Fire] Department and all of its members — from the highest supervisors to the lowest ranks,” he wrote.

“The message sent … is that the IGO places little value on the type of work and sacrifices the Department and all its members routinely perform. ... Like the Queen of Hearts in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ whose only response to any perceived misconduct was the overly cruel mandate, ‘Off with their heads,’ in the end, those bellicose commandments which are not followed ultimately make that individual a powerless figure who is not to be taken seriously.”

Ferguson could not be reached for comment.

Sources said Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration has no plans to appeal the arbitrator’s ruling because the “extreme circumstances” that would be necessary to overturn the arbitrator do not exist.

It’s not the first time that Benn has overturned suspensions and firings in the Fire Department.

The same thing happened in the notorious case of the raucous, videotaped 1990 retirement party at Engine 100.

In 1998, the city fired seven firefighters and suspended 21 others captured on the Engine 100 tape, only to have Benn overturn the discipline on grounds that the city violated the collective bargaining agreement requiring an immediate investigation. The city waited more than six months to launch a probe after learning of the tape.

The Daley administration subsequently convinced the Illinois Appellate Court that the reversals were against public policy. The case was remanded to Benn, who was allowed only to consider whether the discipline against the firefighters was appropriate.

In November, 2002, Benn ruled that the seven fired firefighters should have been suspended instead, noting their work history was “unblemished.” They didn’t receive back pay for the 4 1/2 years they were out of work. But, the city was ordered to restore their pension benefits and rehire them within 45 days. The suspensions of 21 others -- from six to 60 days -- were upheld.

The videotape of the Engine 100 party has been played over and over again by local television stations.

It showed white firefighters drinking beer, using racial slurs and even mooning the camera. Fallout led to the 1999 resignation of then-Fire Commissioner Edward Altman and his son, Edward Altman Jr., former head of the Fire Department’s Internal Affairs Division.

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