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Firefighters moonlighting on hit show ‘Chicago Fire’ may be burning taxpayers

Hollywood producer Dick Wolf’s hit television show “Chicago Fire” has showcased the bravery of Chicago firefighters and paramedics. The locally shot series also has served as a boon to Chicago’s efforts to become a center of film and television production.

But it looks like Chicago taxpayers may be getting burned when it comes to the moonlighting firefighters working as extras on the show.

Inspector General Joe Ferguson disclosed Thursday that two firefighters trying their hand at acting on what was supposed to be time off had no business working on the show.

One, a now-former deputy district chief, allegedly worked for NBC Universal’s local production company, Open 4 Business LLC, on two occasions when he was supposed to be fighting fires for the city.

The other, a now-former firefighter, was supposed to be on medical lay-up and, therefore, ineligible to hold supplemental employment.

The deputy district chief jumped to avoid being pushed. He retired before the investigation could be completed, but not before writing a $1,604 check to reimburse the city for the time he was working as an extra when he was supposed to be on the clock for the city.

The firefighter moonlighting while on medical leave was terminated on Ferguson’s recommendation. But Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2 is appealing the firing. An arbitration hearing is scheduled for Dec. 4. The Law Department declined to seek reimbursement from the firefighter, citing a 2012 arbitrator’s ruling that overturned suspensions and firings stemming for rampant payroll padding in the Fire Prevention Bureau.

The “Chicago Fire” extras accused of wrongdoing were not identified by name. But they were the inadvertent stars of Ferguson’s quarterly report for reasons that went beyond their alleged wrongdoing.

Ferguson also revealed that Fire Department employees working as extras on the show signed blank timesheets that were later completed by a studio production assistant and that Chicago Police Department employees “followed the same practice.” That ignores a standard caveat that states, “I represent that the recorded times are accurate and worked by me.”

“This practice left personnel vulnerable to allegations of time falsification in connection with their city employment,” Ferguson wrote.

“Signing such a document is inherently risky and could be considered fraudulent because the employees are wholly unaware of the specific times later entered on the form by the production personnel. Indeed, because of studio record-keeping practices, OIG could not conclusively determine the accuracy of the ‘Chicago Fire’ time records. Thus, even where employees lack the intent to abuse the system, they are vulnerable to the appearance of both time falsification and falsification of statements with potential for significant negative consequences.”

Ferguson called the carte blanche practice “particularly problematic” for police personnel.

“If CPD time records were to conflict with the ‘Chicago Fire’ time records, an officer could unnecessarily be subject to allegations of time falsification, which would bear upon the officer’s credibility and veracity,” the inspector general wrote, apparently referring to the fact that police officers file arrest reports and routinely testify in court.

The inspector general shined the light on two other problems tied to NBC’s hit TV show shot in Chicago.

First, Chicago Fire Department employees told investigators they regularly “traded work shifts and days in order to work” as extras on “Chicago Fire.” That conduct “directly conflicts” with the union contract, which states that “trades for both tours of duty and Daley Days [specified days off] are not to be approved for any outside employment.”

Second, firefighters and paramedics interviewed acknowledged that they were “paid more” by Chicago Fire “for bringing and using their CFD uniforms and gear when appearing as extras” on the show.

Ferguson called the practice an “apparent violation” of personnel rules and a Fire Department general order.

“Uniforms and gear are provided by the city. The city also replaces worn out, destroyed or damaged uniforms and gear. Therefore, the city has an interest in ensuring that uniforms and gear are protected and used only for official duties,” the inspector general wrote.

In response to Ferguson’s findings, the Fire Department has promised to caution all employees about the “loose controls on timekeeping records” on “Chicago Fire.” The department is in the process of implementing “full electronic scheduling” that may alleviate the problem.

As for the uniform issue, the city has an agreement with the production company that authorizes the “use of CFD’s intellection property” and allows employees “to wear uniforms for the limited purpose of appearing as extras,” department officials stated.

The Law Department was unable to seek reimbursement from the firefighter on medical lay-up because of the precedent set by independent arbitrator Edwin H. Benn’s ruling in the Fire Prevention Bureau scandal.

In June 2012, Benn overturned the city’s firing of four firefighters and reduced lengthy suspensions for 44 others in a Fire Prevention Bureau where padding mileage expenses was so entrenched and condoned it was “almost a work rule.”

The arbitrator 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.”

Ferguson was infuriated by the ruling.

“The idea that stealing, fraudulent falsification of official records and lying is acceptable because everyone else is doing it is patent nonsense. Any child knows better,” Ferguson said at the time.

The inspector general said then that the rampant mileage padding that prompted him to recommend that all 54 firefighters be fired did not arise out of some “technical violation of some obscure and misunderstood” city rule.

Those accused “admitted to routinely and systematically lying in order to steal money” from the Chicago taxpayers, the inspector general said.

“That conduct is also criminal. . . . It cannot be excused just because supervisors as equally `culturally challenged’ as their charges found it acceptable,” Ferguson wrote.

“The Chicago Fire Department has a long and proud history. . . . However, bravery in service to the public does not put them above the law, or excuse them from their moral and fiduciary obligation to the people of this city. . . . When government allows those who steal taxpayers’ money to keep their taxpayer-funded jobs, we do grievous damage to the public trust.”

One year later, the same arbitrator thwarted the city from seeking repayment from the accused, which amounted to $100,000 in 2009 alone.

Benn agreed with Local 2 that reimbursement amounted to “double-jeopardy” because the city had not sought cost recovery as part of the disciplinary process.