Padding mileage expenses was so entrenched and condoned in Chicago's Fire Prevention Bureau, it was "almost a work rule," an arbitrator ruled Thursday, overturning the city's firing of four firefighters and reducing lengthy suspensions for 44 others.
Independent arbitrator Edwin H. 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 Benn noted that the alleged mileage padding was a "decades-long practice" that was taught, "condoned and encouraged by supervisors." In fact, Benn noted that many of the inspectors were "assured by their supervisors that the accuracy of their mileage totals would not be challenged."
As a result, the arbitrator wrote, "It is fair to conclude that the condonation and supervisory encouragement of employees to submit the maximum amount allowable for mileage reimbursement instead of submitting actual mileage expenses incurred was so deep, long-standing and pervasive that it went beyond condonation to rise to the level of becoming almost a work rule" in the Fire Prevention Bureau.
Although the charges are serious and might otherwise warrant firings and even longer suspensions, Benn wrote, "The amount of discipline imposed under these circumstances cannot be of a degree that should be imposed if condonation and encouragement at this level did not exist."
In a 30-page ruling issued Thursday, Benn: reinstated four fired firefighters and ordered them to serve 40-day suspensions instead; reduced four 60-day suspensions to 40 days; cut 23 forty-five-day suspensions to 25 days; reduced 17 thirty-day suspensions to 20 days and allowed two supervisors who resigned to rescind their resignations. The captain was ordered to serve a 40-day suspension. The lieutenant was handed 25 unpaid days off.
Back pay to all must be paid with interest and reinstatements must occur with full seniority.
"We're happy that those who were disciplined were vindicated and we can put this issue behind us and move on," said Tom Ryan, president of the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2.
Benn also unloaded on 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.
"Anyone with any labor relations experience can only wince when reading the IGO's recommendations. . . . Whether intended or not, the IGO's draconian disciplinary recommendations in this case demean and denigrate the [Fire] Department and all of its members - from the highest supervisors to the lowest ranks," he wrote.
Ferguson could not be reached for comment.
Sources said Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration has no plans to appeal the arbitrator's ruling because the "extreme circumstances" that would be necessary to overturn the arbitrator do not exist.
It's not the first time that Benn has overturned suspensions and firings in the Fire Department.
The same thing happened in the notorious case of the raucous, videotaped 1990 retirement party at Engine 100.
In 1998, the city fired seven firefighters and suspended 21 others captured on the Engine 100 tape, only to have Benn overturn the discipline on grounds that the city violated the collective-bargaining agreement requiring an immediate investigation.
The Daley administration subsequently convinced the Illinois Appellate Court that the reversals were against public policy.
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