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Overtime Pay Sparks Probe of Westminster Fire Dept.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The Orange County district attorney’s office is investigating whether Westminster firefighters and their superiors fraudulently collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in an overtime-pay scheme that has undermined the city’s effort to streamline the embattled Fire Department.

City financial audits, which have been turned over to investigators, show that some firefighters have regularly collected $20,000 to $40,000 a year in overtime and that department members went on what city leaders call an “overtime rampage” shortly after the Westminster City Council passed a reorganization plan last year.

During the so-called binge, firefighters charged up $283,000 in overtime during a period from July 1 to Sept. 15, 1993, exhausting the $75,000 reserved for such wages in the 1993-94 budget.

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Representatives for the Westminster Firefighters Assn. on Wednesday strongly denied any wrongdoing by department personnel, and one union official said he welcomed the investigation to help clear up concerns of the City Council.

Meanwhile, Paul Gilbrook, president of the association, has been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of disciplinary proceedings into whether he improperly collected money for sick leave.

The audits and the investigation are the latest developments in an already strained relationship between city leaders and the firefighters association, which supports a recall of the four council members who voted to overhaul the fire service.

“We have uncovered a hornet’s nest. Other cities are watching how we tame the hornets,” said Councilwoman Charmayne S. Bohman, referring to the city’s strong firefighters union. “We’ve taken on the big boys. . . . We have evidence firefighters falsified time cards, took vacation days and (still) charged for cash.”

Spokesmen for the firefighters association, which represents everyone on the 63-member department except the chief, blamed the overtime situation on the City Council for failing to approve enough firefighters.

Council members are “engaging in slanderous commentary,” said Alan C. Davis, an attorney who represented Westminster firefighters last year in a lawsuit against the city over layoffs. “This has reached the point that they should be held responsible for their conduct. We will take to the D.A. our own allegations of criminal slander.”

Deputy Dist. Atty. Guy Ormes, who heads the district attorney’s unit that looks into corruption by public officials, confirmed that an investigation has been underway for almost two months.

Ormes declined to elaborate on the breadth of the allegations, except to say that some of it relates to overtime charges by firefighters. He said he did not know when the investigation would be finished. But sources said the district attorney’s office is looking into whether there is a broad conspiracy to defraud the city.

The city made a formal complaint to the district attorney’s office several months ago after financial audits by the accounting firm of KMPG Peat Marwick revealed large amounts of overtime.

The situation and the district attorney’s investigation were revealed Tuesday evening during Mayor Charles V. Smith’s state-of-Westminster address before the City Council.

City officials say they audited about $4 million in overtime payments since 1986 after an initial accounting revealed that some firefighters, including several high-ranking ones, have been paid tens of thousands of dollars in overtime.

Smith said Wednesday that the city has uncovered cases of firefighters receiving overtime for hours not worked or receiving overtime for shifts that were worked by other people. City officials also say that some firefighters improperly received cash payments for vacation time and sick time that were actually used.

It is unclear how many department members are involved or how much fraudulent overtime was allegedly paid, but a number of firefighters are facing potential disciplinary action by the city, Smith said.

“The majority of these guys are probably honest, hard-working firefighters and paramedics,” Smith said. “How many are involved, though, I just don’t know. My feeling is that it will be a relatively small proportion of the department.”

Davis, the firefighters’ attorney, said the city is charging Gilbrook, the head of the firefighters union, with allegedly receiving more money in sick pay than he was entitled to.

Fire Chief John T. DeMonaco Jr. was scheduled to conduct hearings today and Friday in the Gilbrook case, but the hearings have been canceled, Davis said. Gilbrook has been on administrative leave since Dec. 28.

Initial suspicions about overtime charges were raised when city auditors disclosed that about $1 million in overtime was paid in fiscal year 1991-92, when the budget for overtime was about $710,000.

In that year alone, a battalion chief made more than $33,416 in overtime, while the department’s other three battalion chiefs averaged about $22,000 in overtime wages, auditors found.

According to the city’s Personnel Department, the annual salary for firefighters is about $44,800. Fire truck engineers make $52,400. Paramedics earn about $56,000. Captains are paid roughly $60,000, while battalion chiefs make at least $75,000. Salaries can be higher or lower depending on experience, cost-of-living raises and other factors.

The audits showed that the average captain’s salary plus overtime came to just more than $83,000 in 1992. Some paramedics received more than $22,000 in overtime in addition to their average salary of $61,000 a year. One paramedic charged for more than $40,000 in overtime pay for 1992.

Smith said the overtime situation grew more acute shortly after the council passed a Fire Department reorganization plan for fiscal year 1993-94 to streamline operations and to almost eliminate overtime payments.

The overhaul took a ladder truck out of service, implemented the paramedic service at one station, eliminated six positions and used floaters to reduce overtime.

But from July 1 to Sept. 15, 1993, Smith said, firefighters went on an “overtime rampage.”

During that time, the firefighters had sued the city over the reorganization plan and obtained a temporary restraining order that was lifted in September. The lawsuit is still pending.

“In just a few weeks, they spent almost four times their annual overtime budget. They have been spending (taxpayer) money at a rate of over $2,500 in overtime per day since the beginning of the fiscal year,” Smith said Wednesday. “This will bankrupt the city if allowed to continue.”

City Atty. Richard Jones said a preliminary review of the audit indicates possible violations of employment policies that could result in reprimands to termination for some firefighters.

“People were getting paid for not working,” Jones said. “That’s the issue.”

At the city’s firehouses Wednesday, firefighters were hesitant to talk about the investigation, but the continuing conflict with the City Council, they say, is taking a heavy toll on morale.

“I can tell you I’m very anxious for this thing to get done,” said Capt. Craig Campbell, the department’s training officer. “Whenever an organization gets this media attention, it tends to get morale down, and we want to get on with our lives and do our jobs as firefighters.”

City leaders and critics of the department say the current investigation into overtime practices is symptomatic of a department that has had difficulties for years and has repeatedly tried to thwart council efforts to improve operations.

“The reason our relationship has been strained is because we are getting close to what has been going on and they do not like it,” Smith said. “The firefighters union has gotten very defensive and they want us out of office. They knew we would not tolerate what is going on in the department.”

Council members say some of the difficulties with the Fire Department began in April, 1990, when firefighters undermined city efforts to improve paramedic response time on the west side of town and bring it up to county standards.

The plan called for paramedic service to be added to Fire Station 3. A new ambulance van was purchased and six firefighters retrained.

Smith said the City Council did not learn until early 1993 that firefighters took paramedic equipment off the fire-paramedic engine in Station 2 on the east side of town and placed the new paramedic van in service at that firehouse instead of Station 3. Station 2 was the firefighters union headquarters.

“At the time we had insufficient paramedic service and too many firefighters,” Smith said. “Most of our calls are for paramedics, but they fought us every step of the way on this.”

Last year, Fire Chief D’Wayne Scott, a 26-year-veteran of the department, was fired in February for disloyalty to the city, a lack of good judgment and failures to assume a high standard of conduct. City officials cited instances of drunken behavior, chronic absenteeism, and the chief’s refusal to send firefighters to the Los Angeles riots in April, 1992.

Scott, who has sued the city for wrongful termination in Superior Court, maintains that he has done nothing wrong and that the allegations are false. He says he did not want to send firefighters to Los Angeles because he considered it unsafe.

“Some of this stuff has been building up for a while,” Smith said. “In the case of Scott, a lot came out during that episode. I expect that more things will come out as we get deeper and deeper into this. This is a long way from being over.”

After the City Council passed the reorganization plan on a 4-1 vote, a petition drive was launched to recall council members Smith, Bohman, Tony Lam and Craig Schweisinger, but not Councilman Frank Fry Jr. The firefighters union and its backers support the recall effort.

Mike Garrison, a director of the firefighters association, said Wednesday that the four City Council members are just trying to retaliate for the recall attempt. He welcomes the investigation, he said, and predicted the firefighters will be vindicated.

“It’s wonderful, it’s great,” Garrison said. “From the very start, we have maintained that nobody has done anything improper or illegal. It will come out that we have done nothing wrong.”

Proponents of the recall have until Feb. 19 to gather the 6,937 signatures necessary to qualify the measure for the ballot. So far, they say, they have gathered more than 4,000 signatures.

City officials said the Fire Department is not being singled out or that the request for an investigation was done in retaliation for the recall drive organized by supporters of the firefighters.

The audit, Smith said, was started months before the firefighters and their supporters circulated the recall petition. “No matter what we do, the firefighters will always say that we’re doing it in retribution. But facts are facts,” he said.

Overtime May Be Overboard

City audits of the Westminster Fire Department have revealed dramatic overtime charges, which are now the subject of a criminal investigation by the district attorney’s office. During the first 10 weeks of the current fiscal year, the department paid nearly $300,000 in overtime charges:

Overtime hours charged Total overtime paid 1986-87 18,769 $341,671 1987-88 23,891 $507,405 1989-90 25,166 $660,974 1990-91 37,089 $927,665 1991-92 31,193 $868,858 1992-93 31,563 $863,986

Note: Data for fiscal year 1988-89 are unavailable.

Individual Cases

City officials are questioning the overtime pay received by certain members of the department in 1992, including a paramedic who was paid more than $40,000 in overtime.

Base Overtime Total Overtime as Position pay pay pay % of base pay Battalion chief $89,255 $33,416 $122,671 37% Captain $76,349 $23,038 $99,387 30% Paramedic 1 $72,474 $40,245 $112,719 56% Paramedic 2 $63,845 $31,608 $95,453 50%

Source: City of Westminster

Researched by BERT ELJERA / For The Times


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