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Buffalo union president admits to decades long practice of firefighters buying & selling overtime. City has asked for state & federal investigation.

From WGRZ-TV story by Scott Brown:

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said he was "shocked" when he learned of an alleged massive overtime scam by some city firefighters.

According to the city, the scam would involve three firefighters working in concert with each other. Here's how the alleged scam worked:

Firefighter 1 would call in sick even though he wasn't. That would then create an overtime opportunity, at time and a half, for someone at his or her firehouse.

Firefighter 2 would then accept the overtime, but rather than work the shift, he or she would then turn around and sell the shift to Firefighter number 3.

Firefighter 3 would then kick back money under the table to firefighter 2.

The city discovered the alleged scam when a number of firefighters admitted to buying and selling shifts during an arbitration hearing at City Hall.

2 On Your Side obtained obtained a copy of the transcript from that hearing.

One firefighter was asked:

"Did you ever pay for a shift?"

He answered "I paid for about 20 or 30 times, depends on what's available."

Question: 'What are the standard rates for shifts?"

Answer "About $165 for days and $270 for nights."

Question: "Do you have any records of people you have paid?"

"No," he answered.

Another firefighter at the hearing was asked:

"Have you ever received money for an overtime swap"

Answer: "About $250."

A third firefighter testified:

"It's a brotherhood. In some way everyone gets paid."

When asked about record keeping, the firefighter tapped his head and said "it's all in here."

2 On Your Side's Scott Brown spoke with the head of the firefighters union about this:

Scott Brown: "Clearly it seems like there's money being passed back and forth?"

Union President Dan Cunningham: "If that's what the transcript showed, then obviously the firefighter was telling the truth."

Scott Brown: "To your knowledge, do firefighters call in sick when they're not sick?"

Dan Cunningham: "No they do not. I'm not a doctor, but no they do not as far as I know."

Scott Brown: "The payments being made by the firefighters, I'm going to say under the table, do you know whether they're being reported on their tax forms?"

Dan Cunningham: "I have no idea. I don't know if they report it, I'm not their tax person."

The city has turned its findings over to state and federal law enforcement officials.

In asking them to investigate the alleged scam, the city charges that "firefighters are engaged in a practice of abusing and gaming the overtime pay…in order to pad or spike pension benefits for the union's most senior members" before they retire.

Scott Brown: "The city is alleging that firefighters are gaming the system."

Dan Cunningham: "I take exception to that comment, that statement, nobody has gamed the system. People are not calling in sick to create overtime, show me who's been brought up on charges and disciplined for doing that."

Scott Brown: "Any idea what you estimate the alleged scam has cost taxpayers?"

Mayor Byron Brown: "We calculate this could have cost city taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars for each year this is done. It's a great deal of money, it's money that taxpayers shouldn't be paying. If someone calls in sick and they're not actually sick that is wrong."

According to city records, overtime in the fire department went from $4.8 million to $10 million in 2008 and it was that year that the city says it discovered a substantial amount of overtime going to a small group of firefighters.

Scott Brown: "From 2006 to 2008 overtime jumped by 100 percent, why was that?"

Dan Cunningham: "We have 29 fire companies – each piece of apparatus that goes out the door has to be manned with four men if one of those guys was off sick, injured, personal leave day, jury duty he has to be replaced. When you are short 170 guys during that period of time, and if you don't have anybody to replace them, is your overtime going to go up?"

Scott Brown:" Mr. Cunningham says at times the city has been 170 people short within the department?"

Mayor Byron Brown: "He is woefully misinformed. At any given time because of retirements, there will be vacancies, but those vacancies over the last seven or eight years average 20 or 30 vacant positions."

And according to city records, over the last six years the fire department has averaged about 28 vacancies a year.

Scott Brown: "Would like to see criminal charges filed against some of these firefighters?"

Mayor Byron Brown: "I would like to see the practice ended immediately and firefighters who have engaged in this type of practice pay some sort of reimbursement to the taxpayers of this community."

Scott Brown: "And what about charges, or kicking them off the force?"

Mayor Byron Brown: "I personally think that would be for law enforcement to decide."

Scott Brown: "Some people watching this may say the mayor doesn't respect or like firefighters?"

Mayor Byron Brown: "I have the utmost respect for our firefighters- they do difficult and dangerous jobs. Everyday when the bell rings at that firehouse they put their lives on the line for the members of this community. But at the same time, they need to conduct themselves- those that are engaged in this practice – and I would like to think it is a few rather than the majority – they need to conduct themselves in the highest level of integrity because the public depends on them."

Scott Brown: "Do you think the city's allegations hold water?"

Dan Cunningham: "I believe under past practices our members had the right to accept or reject overtime, or ask somebody else if they were interested in working."

Scott Brown: "Are you saying this practice of buying and selling shifts was going on for decades?"

Dan Cunningham: "Yes, three or four or five decades.

The arbitrator ruled that the swapping of shifts was illegal, and in February of this year Commissioner Garnell Whitfield issued an order stating that "there shall be no swapping of overtime…Any member accepting overtime shall report for duty or be considered AWOL."

Scott Brown: "I got to say Dan, people watching this are going to say this is a scam, guys are selling shifts to each other."

Dan Cunningham: "The arbitration hearing says that is no longer legal to do it. Nobody's doing it, nobody's doing it. But in the past it was a legal practice going back 40 years, so I tip my hat to Commissioner Whitfield and the mayor – if that's what they believe they can stop the members from making more money and increasing their pensions that's good for the taxpayers."

Comments - Add Yours

  • John

    Isn't this similar to the activity in Nevada recently (Las Vagas?)? What was the outcome there?

  • mark

    I'm going to step in it here, but oh well, I am a taxpayer as well as a fireman.
     
    And you pro-union folks wonder why Joe Taxpayer is bitching to high heaven about the benefits and pensions of firemen and cops. Really? Are you that dense? You have to admit this kind of crap goes on in every sector of public service for the benefit of the soon to be retirees. And union reps know it but cry about concessions and this and that, blah, blah, blah.
     
    I know this happened in my county with the sheriff's deputies after 9/11 and before TSA BS was fully in place. The guy closest to retirement was given the concourse "guard" shift. Paid time and a half or double (can't remember) which conveniently raises their pay for the last couple years before retirement which is what their pension was based on. This is not hearsay, this came from the deputy sitting the post. He told me, first hand.
     
    You don't think the taxpayers are fed up with this? The way gov't wastes money on so many other things, and then their one primary function–public safety–turns out the employees are just as guilty as the rest of the politicians of misusing, actually stealing money from the taxpayers.
     
    You need to stop defending the union brothers right, wrong or otherwise and get with the program. Just as you rip these idiot treasurers of vollie companies that embezzle and steal from their departments. The union brothers are just as guilty. Sorry if you don't like the truth, but it is what it is.

    • Former Chief

      Mark, I don't totally disagree, but you're painting the unions with a very broad brush.  I have been a volunteer for many years and was also an IAFF member for several years.  Our union local fought for better staffing and equipment and was successful.  Not all unions are just after the money.  I will agree that Firefighters everywhere need to realize that we are being scrutinized for our actions, that's paid and volunteer and we constantly need to do the right thing.  Are there abuses of the system, absolutely.  In many cases, such as it appears in Buffalo, these were accepted practices, past precedent, that several administrations condoned.  That cannot be entirely blamed on the unions.  But, if there are abuses, we need to be the ones out front to correct them.

      • dave statter

        Mark and Former Chief

        As I have pointed out before, and talking in general and not about this case, when the union members are blinded by the OT gravy train and in turn the leadership isn’t in there fighting every day about filling positions, it will likely come back to haunt them. It has happened all across the country.

        In some cases the firefighters are involved in practices that are ethically wrong and may cross the border of criminality. But often, even when there is absolutely no wrong doing, the union and its members are still tainted by a perceived scandal that isn’t even there. The only effective way to handle that is for the union leadership to be pro-active and sound the alarm about excess OT due to the failure to properly staff the department. Shout it out to the politicians, the press and the public before your enemies do it. Don’t let them use it against you and don’t let the membership get so comfortable, complacent, sloppy and even greedy about OT that it blocks the union from taking the moral and ethical high ground on this issue.

        There are plenty of examples from the past few years of how not to deal with this situation. Learn from them.

        Statter

  • Tower5Ladder

    This is a double edged sword.  I agree with Mark, in that some unions will eventually lead themselves to there own demise.  The actions of a few will tarnish a great fire dept.  However, that being said, the city of Buffalo didnt hire 1 fireman from like 2001 to 2008. (someone correct me if I am off).  The numbers the city is using are not gonna be accurate when multiple people retire, get hurt, whatever, and are never filled.  They have miniumum manning, so eventually if your not filling positions, your gonna have alot of OT.  Its common sense.  If people retire, or leave, and you dont replace them, but on duty staffing stays the same, then you have to pay OT.

  • play4keeps

    Unfortuantely, this will be seen as gaming the system, and will reflect poorly on the BFD. The payoff thing is really stupid. However,  in reality, there are guys who will make ends meet, as best as possible and use a system that permits this.  Ultimately,Dave, you hit the nail on the head.
    For example – FDNY.  If it was your turn to go off (FDNY) by feining injury to create a spot, you did just that.  Maybe unethical, but simply  a matter of survival for a lot of guys.  I'm not making excuses for this, but hear me out. Firemen don't make a lot in some of these higher cost of living places.  No does it seem that the political leadership gives a damn (yeah, they give a damn to the developors and money classes that get them elected).  It's pretty difficult to afford anything in New York on a fireman's salary and shift.  Yeah, I know it's a choice you make – and morals do matter.  Still consider…
    a place where it is difficult to get a pay raise and no contract for years, companies cut with increased workload, terrible working condition, fees, taxes, children, whatever…if you didn't look out for one another and create that time and a half spot, you are not "playing your part."  (Unless, you live and work in Cali, where you can retire at 90%and  LOL all the way to the bank!).
    This of course, does not exist in most places (90-some percent of the career depts), but where it does, it is prevalent and expected.  We all know what the solution is – work with the unions to fill vacancies and give pay raises and use internal affairs tif the game playing continues.  

  • mark

    I'd like to use the reply, but nothing happens when I click it. Not sure what happened to my computer.
     
    Anyways, Former Chief, if the unions as a whole are not hiding anything, then the IAFF and every other local should be doing their own investigating and making anything they find public and immediately putting a stop to it. I won't be holding my breath waiting for this to happen. And Buffalo's rep should have been more forthcoming in stating how deplorable this practice is, IF it is true, which he admits it is because a fireman stated it. Instead he goes into CYAno comment mode, more or less.
     
    Dave is absolutely correct, the best way to reduce OT costs are to fill the empty positions, but chiefs as well as union reps are not doing their jobs in educating the public about this.

    • Former Chief

      I do agree with Dave as well.  I did say in my post that if there are abuses, we, as in the rank and file, paid or volunteer, need to correct those abuses.  But, I still believe you cannot accuse all unions of abuse, that is simply not true.  There are many localities where the union and the administration work together to facilitate effective fire protection.

  • BH

    There's locals around here that plan out their sick time a year in advance.  Anybody who says otherwise is a bold-faced liar. 
    That said, the kickbacks are a new one, haven't seen that before.  The payoff for the guys I know is that FF1 takes a bogus sickday, FF2 gets the OT, then next week FF2 takes the sick day and FF1 gets the OT.  Keeps it legal, but still shady and still screws the taxpayer. 

  • Oh Lord

    Well for starters it seems NO MATTER when a union is named it’s a “Bad” thing. Some of you knuclebucks need to clean up your stereotypical minds, this isn’t a Union issue, it’s an ethical issue. Buffalos union does help their brothers out by fighting city hall for benefit, retirement, Human Resource and salary issues. This issue was brought on by a few selfish individuals who benefited off each other and the trust giving taxpayers of Buffalo. The idiot union president Dan Cunningham was circling around the questions from the reporter and then later admitted that all this had been going on for “DECADES”….”because it was legal do so back then”. Just because you can do it doesn’t always make it right. Unions are here to protect their member’s rights. In some departments you the employee have a choice to be a Union member and those that chose not to be…guess what, they benefit from the actions they may be pressed by these unions and don’t pay a cent. I’m sure this little blog will send a wild fire of “hissy fits” but all well….everyone knows we have POS on both sides of the fence. No matter if your Volly or Paid its either a job or a hobby. Be safe out there.
     

  • Anonymous

    Ulitimately, with any practice, you have to ask yourself – "how is this going to look on the news?". Obviously, nobody asked that question in this situation.

  • mark

    Oh Lord, you'll notice that I said it is just as much a problem as vollie treasurers that embezzle. Or drive drunk. Or light fires. Or any number of stupid things that humans do.
     
    Secondly, yes, the union is their to protect the members, although the firemen's job is to protect the public first. Themselves second. So, who protects the public who is PAYING the unethical and possible criminal firemen?
     
    Third, you say this was brought on by a few individuals. For 50 years? Even 20 or 30 years pushes it past a few. And that union that is there to protect the members, did anyone think about standing up and doing the right thing, telling these idiots to knock it off for the good of all the members? (Which is allegedly the point of unions, protecting all, not just a few idiots which is what they have turned into) And if they didn't follow that suggestion, keep going up the ladder? Because if they didn't, they are just as guilty of allowing the taxpaying public to be screwed and stolen from just as the firemen who actually participated in this stupidity.
     
    But yes, it is an ethics issue. One that would seem to involve a whole lot of folks if it's been going on as long as it has.

  • Harney

    The only reason this practice occurs is because apparently pension benefits in Buffalo (as well as FDNY, at least) are computed on base salary plus overtime.  In many (most??) areas, pensions are based on highest 36 month salary / 12, NOT INCLUDING OVERTIME.  That is the case in DC (I know) and its suburbs (I'm reasonably certain).  When there is a way to game the system, some knuckleheads will do it.  Honestly earned pension benefits are hard enough to justify to taxpayers in these very trying economic times;  the last thing we as a profession need is an issue like this.

  • North Chief

    I believe there was a large midwest depatment a few years back where captains on the promotion list were paying Battalion chiefs to retire early before the list expired so they could get promoted without having to test all over again. It was reported that some were charged with bribery of a public official, due to the fact that they benefited financially by being promoted. Apparently it had been standard practice and a set amount was paid untill one Batt. Chief got greedy and doubled the standard amount. Thats when the whole thing went public. Not sure if anything was done about it and it may still be going on today. Firemen are human and some of them have ethics and morals and some don't. That will never change as long as humans are firefighters, or cops or politicians.

  • fedup

    Not for nothing but I dont see where the extra cost to the taxpayer is.  FF1 goes off the position has to be filled regardless.  The reason he went off is always a question, but if the department has no way to prove it the ff is sick then they dont have ground to stand on.  I know my dept has no call out sick days….you have to report and be transported to the hospital and then to the dept dr to be put off sick……..As for ff2 and ff3 the under the table paying and trading for the shift, while it may be a tax issue for unclaimed income, I dont see where the taxpayer is being swindled.  Its just a matter of a ff paying another ff for the oportunity to work. The department isnt paying the additional monies.
     
      I also take offense to the ter "overtime gravy train"  not sure of the schedual in the bfd, but "overtime" still requres the member to show up and be a ff for 12-14 or 24 hours.  I dont see where the cake walk is.  Most departments work over 40 hours a week as it is without built in OT….when your on OT it dosent mean your home not risking your life……

    • dave statter

      fedup,

      Feel free to take all of the offense you want. This isn’t a conversation about the risks of being a firefighter. That’s a given. It isn’t going to save you in the public’s eye if they believe you are milking it (even if you have done nothing wrong).

      The term was used just as a way to contrast there is a real downside for the image of firefighters on this overtime issue when people are making more than top city officials (even when, as it usually is, it’s on the up and up). You may be earning it with hard work, but if the union isn’t pro-active in trying to get the amount of OT available lowered by pushing for new FTEs or watching for these ethical situations, it will bite you big time on side Charlie. I have watched this same scenario over and over across the country in the past few years. If you escape the scrutiny and the image problems that go with it, count yourself very lucky.

      Do you think it is okay to sell your overtime shift for cash?

      Statter

  • Harney

    Paying someone of a higher rank to retire and create a vacancy is a completely different issue.  There is nothing illegal or unethical about that, and there is no adverse impact on the pension system.  In fact, the retiree's pension benefit would likely be reduced somewhat if he/she retired before reaching maximum benefit because a prospective promotee paid that person to retire earlier than planned.  There is nothing in that scenario for the taxpayers to find fault with, unlike the Buffalo situation.

    • dave statter

      You may be right about the cost to taxpayers my good friend Mr. Harney, but I don’t think the public would smile upon that situation and I think it would also cause some image problems. Hope you are well.

      Statter

  • Don Rimgale

    If a vacancy was created by Firefighter 1 and Firefighter 2 accepted the chance to work overtime. How on earth did the department allow Firefighter 3 to fill the position? Are there no company officers? Are there no Battalion Chiefs? Are there no Shift Commanders?
    Shame on the firefighters for creating a situation that reflect the department in a negative light — especially in this time of anti-government sentiment. However, the department administration obviously allowed this to happen. Either they allowed it to happen or they were oblivious to it happening. Either way, that shows a failure among department brass. Where is the scrutiny for them?

  • exdutchman

    There is such a simple fix to all of this.  Calculate pensions off of the last year of salary/normal wages for workers/employees and then there is a lot less chance to "game" the system.  Furthermore, reqiure that retirees do not get to draw any pensions until a certain estabalished retirement age.
    Retirement was not ment to pay folks for 20-30 years after working.  Perhaps an even better plan is to eliminate pensions entirely, and place a fixed amount in a retirement account for each employee (with their option to add to the amount personally).  This will help keep the tax payers from getting fleeced by so many public sector retirees!

  • Paul M. FDNY

    OK Dutchman, so you want firefighters to have benefits similar to the majority of the private sector, but they still have to work overnights, work holidays, do more with less (as we see cities become less and less financially sound), AND get paid a lower annual salary than their counterparts who sit behind a desk without any risk to life and limb. Who does this hurt in the end? Besides the people who really love firefighting, the people who need highly qualified professional firefighters to help them in their worst times. Sub par compensation, sub par working conditions (to say the least) and now no defined benefit pension plan? Why should anyone become a firefighter when they could easily go to school for something like finance or nursing or a number of other things which are much higher paid, and where your wife and kids dont worry about you not coming home the next day.
    The direction this country is headed is unbelievable. We should just outsource fireman and get it over with.

  • oldhead

    Hahaha, good one Paul M.  There's an easier solution everyone has missed.  Just don't let anyone earn sick leave.  You call in sick, tough sh*% you're on leave without pay.  After all everyone knows that absolutely NO ONE in any other profession has EVER, EVER, EVER, called in sick without being sick.  Yeah Paul, you're right.  The direction this country is headed in is un-effen-believable.  Once the sick leave problem is solved we can start getting rid of ALL public sector employees because they're the reason this country is in the economic mess it's in, it's definitely not the crooked politicians, greedy Wall Street a-holes, bankers, mortgage brokers and lenders, all of whom need remedial courses in second grade arithmetic.

  • Dallas

    exdutchman,
     
    I am with you on the retirement calculation; including overtime in the average final earnings has always struck me as a recipe for problems:  It provides incentives for people to game the system; it can have unintended consequences (see the mass retirements in the FDNY post-9/11 due to the overtime associated with the incident and its impact on their retirement earnings); and while I am not an actuary I have to think that it has some negative consequences for the retirement trust accounts.  While I am sure that the folks that are in a system that includes overtime in their retirement calculation like the system it is very difficult to defend to the public, and for good reason in my opinion.
     
    On the subject of delaying the payment of retirement benefits I have to disagree.  Doing this job can be very hard on the body.  I have been doing it for over 30 years and while I have been lucky not to be seriously injured I still have to contend with back issues.  I don't know anyone who has been doing this for 20+ years for even a somewhat busy agency that doesn't have some type of physical issue that they deal with (backs, knees, shoulders, necks, etc.).  When you leave this job after 20+ years you have some serious wear on your body that you deal with every day.
     
    Additionally, we don't typically live that long after retirement.  The crap that we have been exposed to over the course of our careers starts manifesting itself as we get older and we tend to die relatively young.  You don't see a lot of 85+ (or even 75+) year old retirees from busy agencies; we tend to die off in our 60's or early 70's for the most part; there are some who live to an old age, but that isn't the norm.
     
    My $.02.

     

    • A.M.D.

      Guarantee Buffalo is not the only city doing this.   No wonder the word  "firefighter" is becoming synonymous with  DO LESS AND ALWAYS ASK FOR MORE, MORE, MORE.    I can understand why the public is fed up.  When I was young I always heard that people don't become firefighters for the paycheck!!! Funny how that conotation has also changed in the past 20 years.  Do firemen really think they are the only ones hurting in the economy??    For those of you who think firemen are not losing their respect in dept's all across the country are seriously living in a cloud. 

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  • Paul M. FDNY

    The question is are firefighters deserving of the fingers that have been pointed at them, or is it a carefully calculated plan by republicans, big business, and the like, to redirect the blame from where it truly belongs. That is squarely on the wall street greed and fear mongerers, and the governments lack of integrity and its allegiance to big business. Too big to fail? I guess the american people don't count in that statement.

  • exdutchman

    Drink some more cool aid Paul M.  It is a function that our towns, cities, states and the federal goverment are all going broke by having to pay out so much for services.  In many cases these services are wants rather than needs, but in any case government has become too bloated.  There are not enough tax dollars available to keep up with the largess.  Take a look at Greece, Italy and Spain.  That will be the US in about 10-15 years are the current rate. 
     
    When we the taxpayers see the constant BS and cheating from public employees (who we pay for) and Unions in general, we get very tired of the stunts.  The private sector has done without for several years too and when the economy is not growing, neither should public sector pay. 

  • dadman

    Lovely. Exercising their God-given union right to suck & scam the tit of the system.
    How many other departments?
    And we wonder why things like SB5 in Ohio come around?

  • ukfbbuff

    My 2 cents from Calif.
    1st. Unfortunatley it "Feeds" in to such Radio Talking Heads such as Rush Limbaugh who "slammed" firefighters earlier this year.
    2nd. The public perception of US does take a "Beating" due to such practices, but if their are not any R's&R's against it,  then it's probably considered an "Acceptable" practice.
    3rd. OMG! My FD has four catagories of "Overtime";
    1. We work 72 hours (3 days on, 4 days off) and paid 53 hours-Straight Time and 19 Hours FLSA OT.
    2. "Planned OT" such as for Vacations . To fill in for that person. We can select to be  available FD Wide (98 Stations) with a minimum of 2 days and no maximum days in a 28 day pay period per our M.O.U..
    3. Immediate Need O.T. ,Such as Emergency OT for Sick Leave for someone who gets sick at work or has a family emergency.
    4. Forced OT to fill vacancies due staffing shortages or personnel sent out on Fire Assignments.
    So their is an opportuinity for one to increase their yearly earnings over their base pay. If you were to look up my base pay and my actual year end earnings their is a large amount of OT in the figures because I work it instead of a second job.
     So, in one respect I would be a "Red Flaged" in such an issue, but when you look at the days worked it shows that I worked a majority of "Scheduled " and Some "Emergency Days".
     The solution of to ending this OT Abuse is in the MOU and R's&R's.
    4th. In answer to "John" regarding the North Las Vegas FD, last I read one B.C. was Terminated.
     

  • oldhead

    exdutchman,
    Who's drinking the kool aid?  Most municipalities' revenue is from property taxes and that tanked in 2008 because of what?  The housing bubble.  And who perpetuated that?  Wall Street, big banks, mortgage brokers and lenders, and the federal government who let the charade of fake math make a sh$# ton of money for a very select few.  The Republicans, goaded by the Tea Party have masterfully shifted the blame to unions and public sector employees, and the Democrats are just as guilty as they have complicitly stood by and let this whitewash happen.  Open YOUR eyes, and open your nose and smell the coffee.  Unions and gevernment employees are NOT what have brought this country down.