Decades ago, Ald. Paddy Bauler uttered cringe-worthy words his city is still living down: “Chicago ain’t ready for reform!” Now, a labor arbitrator is confirming the same old saw still applies to the Chicago Fire Department.
Arbitrator Edwin Benn is reducing penalties handed out to scores of firefighters for what would seem to be an obvious breach of business ethics— they padded their mileage reimbursement reports.
Benn says there’s no question that the firefighters were “systematically vastly overstating the number of miles they drove in their personal vehicles, when performing inspections and other FPB-related business” (FPB being the Fire Prevention Bureau). Benn called it a “decades-long practice”, finding that cheating firefighters got paid many thousands of dollars to which they were not entitled.
Throw the book at them, right? Wrong.
The City Inspector General, Joe Ferguson, recommended firing the whole lot. Fire Commissioner Robert Hoff had sought reduced penalties, trying to fire just four fire inspectors, while suspending another 46.
Arbitrator Benn, however, ruled that Hoff's punishments were too harsh because the firefighters in question had padded their mileage with “the express encouragement of their supervisors”, calling the systematic fraud “almost a work rule” at the FPB.
He quoted extensively from statements the accused had given investigators:
- “I was told to max out on the mileage. It’s in the budget for fire prevention. If we don’t use the money in the budget, the money will be used for something else. We will lose the money so max out.”
- “That was how everybody was turning them in. That was the culture..."
- “…the mileage here is not being scrutinized, this is part of you being here so fill out the documents this way, vice versa and that’s what you do. That’s pretty much what everybody’s done since the Bureau’s been in service.”
Benn concluded “everyone is doing it and it’s okay” is no defense, but found that supervisors' condonation and even encouragement of such behavior meant the Fire Commissioner’s punishments weren’t based on just cause. He wound up reducing all the suspensions (30 days down to 20, 60 days reduced to 40, etc.).
The four folks the department wanted to fire had previously been involved in another scam, collecting money on the side from companies and buildings for doing inspections on weekends, and not reporting the payments to the department.
Incredibly, Benn had saved their bacon in that case too, finding that the side payments were another unwritten tradition condoned by supervisors, though he warned them not to engage in the same misconduct, or they’d be canned. Now, Benn concludes they can’t be fired because the mileage padding is only “similar”, but not “the same” misconduct.
The arbitrator does note that “these four Grievants effectively dodged a bullet — for a second time. There will not be a third time…”
The only real outrage Benn expresses, though, is directed at the Inspector General’s office for urging that people be fired for cheating. Benn waxes extensively on the risks firefighters face and then compares the Inspector General to the Queen of Hearts in “Alice in Wonderland”, who considers “off with their heads!” to be the appropriate punishment for every misdeed.
Benn concludes, hyperbolically: “IGO’s draconian disciplinary recommendations in this case demean and denigrate the Department and all of its members from the highest supervisors to the lowest ranks.”
Almost as soon as his ruling hit the Sun-Times this morning, the arbitrator has been taking flak from all sides.
Trib columnist Eric Zorn, a reliable liberal: “Your parents and teachers may have told you that "but everyone else is doing it!" is never an excuse for bad behavior. But they never met Edwin Benn.”
From the blogger at Second City Cop, who rarely agrees with Zorn about anything: “So since everybody knew about it and everybody did it, it's okay? Isn't that kind of the "endemic corruption" that Chicago is famous for? And isn't that kind of what's wrong with government in general?”
Benn’s no rookie— his CV boasts of 3500 arbitration decisions handed down since 1986. This ruling— by downplaying the seriousness of endemic, epidemic corruption while working up serious dudgeon over a recommendation of harsh punishment— reads like a spirited defense of the Chicago Way.
One can only hope that new Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago is working up memos stating the obvious for his troops— don’t pad your expenses, don’t falsify documents, tell the truth, don’t put in for money you’re not owed. That way, firefighters can’t say they weren’t warned that wrong is wrong, the next time they come up before Arbitrator Edwin Benn.
(This article has been amended, to reflect Fire Commissioner Hoff's retirement, and replacement by Santiago)