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Clearwater deputy fire chief resigns as report on sick leave abuse is released

CLEARWATER — A months-long probe into abuse of sick leave within the fire department concluded this week with the resignation of a deputy chief and the release of an internal review.

The city paid $93,816 in unearned or unauthorized sick time, benefits and incentives over the past five years, according to the review. On Monday, days after the report was completed, Clearwater Fire & Rescue Deputy Chief Steven Strong resigned in lieu of being fired.

He was named in the review as the supervisor of a former logistics manager who changed his address to one in Key West and told peers he was going sailing — yet stayed on the city's payroll.

"He (Strong) simply didn't do enough on his part to ensure that the sick leave rules were being followed," City Manager Bill Horne said Wednesday.

Strong, a 13-year employee who made $115,230 a year, could not be reached for comment. He is the second employee to resign amid the fallout. The first was Martin Moran, an administrative support manager.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Clearwater Fire & Rescue official resigns after audit shows misuse of sick leave, vacation payouts.

Horne said the city will provide Fire Chief Scott Ehlers with an executive coach to strengthen his administrative management skills.

The audit's final tally is less than the roughly $219,000 the city initially reported in March and about $8,300 less than a recently revised number.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Clearwater Fire & Rescue audit showed misuse of sick and vacation time. Now the audit has its own problems.

Human Resources Director Joseph Roseto said that, upon further inspection, some employees with questionable sick time had legitimate excuses that weren't properly documented. An example of that discrepancy, Roseto said, was the city double-counting the vacation time of one employee.

The probe started in March after WFLA-Ch. 8 started asking questions about Paul Capo, a former lieutenant who continued to use sick and vacation leave after starting a new job in Colorado.

The city's review chronicles the cases of 16 firefighters and one manager who used their sick leave continuously before they resigned, used it sporadically in the year before they resigned or retired or who had legitimate reasons that weren't properly documented. Costs associated with the last group were not included in the final tally.

The first group racked up the highest bill: $70,162 between five employees. In the case that involved Strong, former logistics manager Stanley Loveday logged 63 sick days between October and March.

Loveday told human resources that last year he had been experiencing stress from the job and needed time off, according to the review. He said he worked out an agreement with Ehlers to use all his sick time to address his issues with the understanding Clearwater Fire & Rescue could call on him while he was gone and that, if he felt better, he could return in May.

However, several emails sent by Strong in November indicate that Loveday had retired, the report said. In one email Loveday sent to a vendor, he wrote, "I am sure by now you have heard I have sailed off."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: City paid thousands in unearned sick time and benefits to Clearwater Fire & Rescue, audit shows.

Both Strong and Ehlers said they thought Loveday was running out his leave before retirement, the review said, though he was not eligible to do so. Strong, who was signing off on the time sheets, blamed Moran for not flagging the issue.

Ehlers said he had no knowledge of the situation until February when he noticed Loveday's extensive sick time, the review said. Ehlers brought his concerns to human resources officials, who, after looking into the issue, said Loveday could come back to work, resign or be fired. Loveday resigned in March. He could not be reached for comment.

Ehlers said the fire department has started holding monthly meetings with district chiefs and human resources to review the use of sick leave.

"We now have the control measures put in place to prevent this from ever happening again," he said.

He added that district chiefs have been briefed on options under the Family and Medical Leave Act, which is typically used if an employee is going to be out for more than three days. Clearwater Fire Fighters Association President Sean Becker said he is doing the same for his members.

"We've made the corrections," he said. "We're trying to police ourselves better."

Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Kathryn Varn at kvarn@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn.

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