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Hillsborough fire rescue deputy chief resigns during pay investigation

Deputy Chief Newell "Chip" Branam resigned Friday from Hillsborough County in the midst of a county investigation into suspicion of pay fraud in his department. [Times file]
Published Jul. 14, 2017

TAMPA — A deputy fire chief with Hillsborough County Fire Rescue is retiring in the midst of an investigation into suspected pay fraud in his department.

Newell "Chip" Branam will retire effective July 28, he informed the county on Friday. He and three shift commanders he oversees have been on paid administrative leave since June 14.

The county is investigating whether the shift commanders — Michael Guincho, Grant Preseau and Nelson Diez — falsified pay stubs when Branam was on vacation.

Fire Chief Dennis Jones first told Deputy County Administrator Greg Horwedel on June 8 that he was concerned about the shift commanders' time cards, according to a memo Horwedel sent the next day to County Administrator Mike Merrill.

The chief compared the time cards to the department's rotational fill-in schedule and concluded there was a "reasonable basis for a further investigation," Horwedel wrote.

The county then hired the private investigations firm of James Orr, a former special agent and polygraph examiner with the FBI. County spokeswoman Liana Lopez said the investigation will continue as planned despite Branam's notice that he'll leave the department.

In a brief phone conversation, Branam confirmed he put in his two weeks on Friday but declined to discuss the investigation.

"It's been 42 years and it's time for me to retire," Branam said. "That's the only comment I got."

Often, public employees who are planning to retire enroll in the Deferred Retirement Option Program, a state authorized retirement program that provides financial incentives for workers to set a retirement date and leave their jobs by that day. Branam was not in the program.

Through Lopez, Jones declined to comment on Branam's retirement, citing the ongoing investigation.

Branam, 60, joined the department in 1975. During a career that spanned four decades, he rose from a rank-and-file firefighter to one of the top positions in the department.

Jones promoted Branam to deputy chief of personnel in June 2016, calling Branam in a nomination letter the "go to guy on tactical and operational concerns." His salary is $125,236.

Branam earned a rating of "superior," the highest distinction, in a December 2015 job review, and has consistently earned high marks throughout his career.

However, he was also the subject of previous disciplinary investigations, some for poor driving.

As division chief in 2011, Branam was verbally disciplined after he failed to follow an order to ensure certain employees received training to operate emergency vehicles, according to a record in his personnel file.

The next year, Branam received "informal counseling" after failing to notify some employees to take a random drug test.

On four occasions between 1994 and 2011, Branam was involved in an accident while driving a county vehicle. After the most recent incident, when he made an U turn in front of another vehicle, causing a crash, Branam was formally disciplined by the county.

He also received a written reprimand in 2005 for unauthorized use of a vehicle. A resident spotted his county vehicle outside of a Harley-Davidson dealership overnight.

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433. Follow @scontorno.

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