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14 firefighters investigated for possible sick leave abuse

Fourteen Clark County firefighters are being investigated for possible sick leave abuse and face punishment, county officials said.

This is an administrative probe that is separate from the criminal investigation being done by the police and FBI.

County Manager Don Burnette said he had to be careful about speculating on the outcomes of investigations.

“The county has not ruled out disciplinary action for those individuals that are currently the subject of investigation,” Burnette said.

However, a source who asked not to be named said that at least one firefighter could be fired and others could be demoted. The labor contract also allows for a firefighter who misuses the system to forfeit six months of sick leave.

Officials estimate that firefighters’ sick leave cost the county $7 million in 2009, partly because tight staffing requires those who fill in for co-workers to be paid overtime.

Last year, overtime helped push county firefighters’ average pay to $130,000 and battalion chiefs’ to $183,000.

Potential sick leave abuse was thrust into the spotlight earlier this year after an arbitrator made note of it when he chose the county’s labor contract offer over terms proposed by firefighters.

Commissioner Steve Sisolak, a critic of firefighters’ compensation, called for an investigation into apparent abuse.

He said he was glad to see some results, and he commended Fire Chief Bertral Washington for “stepping up,”

He recommends that the wrongdoers pay restitution.

“I think restitution is an important issue — repaying the county, the taxpayers, for money they took illegally,” Sisolak said.

Officials at the local firefighters union say they haven’t decided whether they will challenge the county’s rulings.

“As we’ve previously stated, if any rules have been broken, the appropriate actions will be taken,” said Ryan Beaman, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 1908.

Capt. Tom Smith, who was accused of sick leave abuse, said he went through a hearing this week and disproved the allegations. An email in 2009 from Smith’s supervisor implied he tried to use sick days as vacation, breaking the rules requiring sick time to be taken only for medical reasons.

But Smith had documents showing he used those days off to be diagnosed and treated for an intestinal ailment.

“I was totally cleared,” Smith said. “They found no abuse whatsoever.”

Smith said his bosses wouldn’t tell him how many firefighters had gone through administrative hearings.

“I think it’s important there are consequences on actions that are illegal or immoral,” Commissioner Mary Beth Scow said of the disciplinary measures.

Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani said a crackdown on abuse is what she has called for all along.

“In the future, management shouldn’t just sit on something,” Giunchigliani said. “When they see a pattern of misbehavior, they should act.”

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

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