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City Hall defends decision not to appeal reinstatement of firefighters

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration on Friday defended its decision not to appeal an arbitrator’s ruling overturning firings and suspensions in a Fire Prevention Bureau where padding mileage expenses was so condoned, it was “almost a work rule.”

“There is not a basis for appeal on arbitration rulings absent exceptional circumstances and our lawyers have concluded such exceptional circumstances don’t exist here,” said Corporation Counsel Stephen Patton.

Law Department spokesman Roderick Drew further explained that the “extreme conditions” must apply to the arbitrator.

“An arbitrator either has to commit a fraud, rule on something that was not before him, render a decision based on personal opinion — not the collective bargaining agreement — or he has to violate public policy. Those are the only grounds and none of those conditions are in effect here,” Drew said.

Emanuel stressed that he has zero-tolerance for corruption or wrongdoing of any kind and has taken some sort of disciplinary action in response to all 32 of the inspector general’s reports.

“I give no quarter to where anybody violates the public trus t….We need to not allow any place, anywhere a violation of the public trust. That’s why we take … serious, any report that deals with a violation of that trust,” he said.

“That said, you have to look at the facts, then use your judgment of what’s appropriate.”

The mayor could not resist taking a shot at 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.

“Just because somebody issued a report, just because somebody [recommended] taking action, don’t everybody with baited breath wait for scalps. They may get their financial renumeration, [but] where do they go to get their reputation back?” Emanuel said.

Arbitrator Edwin H. Benn ruled this week that padding mileage expenses was so entrenched and condoned in Chicago’s Fire Prevention Bureau, it was “almost a work rule.”

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 because the practice of submitting the maximum amount allowable for mileage reimbursement instead of actual expenses incurred was so long-standing and pervasive, he overturned the city’s firing of four of the accused firefighters, dramatically reduced lengthy suspensions for 44 others and ordered back pay with interest for all of them.

Two supervisors who resigned were also allowed to rescind their resignations and return to work after serving 40- and 25-day suspensions.

Benn also argued that the inspector general’s “draconian” disciplinary recommendations “demean and denigrate” the Fire Department and all of its members.

“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,” the arbitrator said.

Ferguson refused to comment.

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