Firefighters union boss 'fine' with investigation


The head of Clark County's local firefighters union agreed Friday that authorities should investigate alleged sick-leave abuse in the Fire Department, but he argued that managers also should answer for overlooking the misconduct.

The union's response came a day after Commissioner Steve Sisolak began calling on authorities to look into whether some firefighters used sick leave to pad each other's paychecks and pensions.

An arbitrator's critical remarks reinforced Sisolak's suspicions that some employees were scamming the system.

He sent letters to the district attorney, state attorney general, the sheriff's department and the FBI, asking that they investigate a potential conspiracy to commit fraud against the public.

"I'm fine with the investigation," said Ryan Beaman, president of the International Firefighters Union Local 1908. "I hope the investigators also look at management."

Managers tolerated excessive sick leave use, failing to act at the time and then waiting until arbitration to bring up abuse that occurred in 2009, Beaman said. "If they (managers) have the information, they should've gone after these employees and disciplined them."

State and federal law enforcement officials said Friday that they hadn't received Sisolak's letter and couldn't comment on whether they would pursue a criminal investigation. District Attorney David Roger and his assistants didn't return calls Friday.

Sisolak appears to have the support of most commissioners on requesting an audit.

The arbitrator chose the county's final contract offer over that of the firefighters union.

The county's changes, which could save taxpayers an estimated $7.4 million, include a 2 percent pay cut, no wage increases, a reduction in long-term disability benefits and a tougher sick leave policy. The contract runs from July 2010 to July of this year, with bargaining for the next contract expected to start soon.

Firefighters averaged $180,000 in wages and benefits in 2009, compared with $80,000 for county workers in the Service Employees International Union.

In his written opinion, arbitrator Norman Brand said that sick leave combined with overtime pushed some firefighters' earnings to more than $200,000 in 2009.

He discussed the two worst offenders, but didn't name them. County records show that 2009 earnings of Kelly McNamara, a fire engineer, and Martin Vohwinkel, a fire captain, matched those that Brand listed.

Neither works for the county now. McNamara retired. Vohwinkel was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for using the Internet to arrange a sexual encounter with a minor.

McNamara took 48 days of paid sick leave in 2009 and still managed to work 92 overtime shifts, earning a total of $232,000 that year.

Vohwinkel used sick leave and overtime to earn $234,000.

More troubling are allegations that some firefighters are conspiring on sick leave to boost overtime and other bonus pay, which would be criminal, Sisolak said.

In these cases, one firefighter calls in sick so a colleague can fill in and get overtime pay. A firefighter also might call in sick at the last minute, so a colleague can receive callback pay for substituting. A firefighter receives callback pay for returning to work sooner than 12 hours after finishing a shift. Callback pay gets counted toward retirement benefits.

"This defrauds the taxpayers for the next 25 years," Sisolak said. "It's like robbing a bank, and then the bank says, 'We'll mail you a check every year.'"

Beaman said the county's and union's recommendations for policing sick calls were almost identical.

In fact, Brand noted that the union was acknowledging with its proposal that a problem existed.

Under the new contract terms, the fire chief will be able to request a doctor's note proving an illness if a firefighter misses five shifts in a year. Previously, a firefighter had to miss four work days in a row before the chief could ask for a doctor's note.

Commissioner Tom Collins questioned why the human resources director didn't step in and fire the employees abusing the system, along with any supervisors who tolerated it. He said county officials were aware of this problem for a long time and did nothing.

But County Manager Don Burnette said the four-days-in-a-row rule handcuffed managers.

Unless a doctor checks a firefighter, there's no way to prove the illness is being faked, no matter how many days the person misses, Burnette said.

"Absolutely fire management and county management suspected widespread abuse," Burnette said.

However, Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani argued that managers were using the four-day rule as an excuse for inaction.

"Someone was asleep at the switch or ignoring it," Giunchigliani said. "There's always something they can do. Personally, I would've fired the person."

Giunchigliani said she favored an audit on sick leave for all departments.

Commissioner Susan Brager said she backs an investigation. If it turns up nothing illegal, then the county did its part to protect the public's interest, she said.

"We need to be responsible to the citizens," Brager said.

Contact reporter Scott Wyland at swyland@reviewjournal.com or 702-455-4519.

 

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