TAMPA — For at least two years, three Hillsborough County Fire Rescue shift commanders manipulated time cards to say they were working when they were actually off, and their supervisor allowed it, according to an investigative report released Wednesday.
The practice has likely cost the county thousands of dollars, if not more. It's not clear when it began. Those involved told investigators it predated their time as shift commanders.
County staff initiated the investigation by James Orr, a former special agent and polygraph examiner with the FBI, after Personnel Division Chief Louis Carnell found discrepancies in hours worked by shift commanders when comparing them to hours worked by the employees who filled in.
On 34 occasions between Nov. 12, 2015 and June 4, county pay records show three fire rescue shift commanders, Nelson Diez, Michael Guincho and Grant Preseau, recorded working regular hours when a subordinate, usually a battalion chief, filled in for them. They also did not deduct annual leave when they were on vacation as they were supposed to.
Preseau, for example, only recorded three days of vacation over nearly two years, according to records.
Chief Dennis Jones recommended Diez, Guincho and Preseau be "separated from employment," according to a letter he sent Wednesday to County Administrator Mike Merrill. He said they could retire or resign effective Friday if they sign a release of liability.
Their supervisor, Operations Chief Newell "Chip" Branam, submitted his resignation on July 14, before the conclusion of the investigation.
In an email to county commissioners, Chief Communications Administrator Liana Lopez said the individuals involved agreed to pay restitution of $42,866.
"The report outlines that there was an issue of poor judgement and manipulation of the system," Lopez wrote.
The investigation will not be referred to law enforcement and the county will not seek further legal action. It was an issue of bad judgement not fraud, said Senior Assistant County Attorney Rudy Haidermota.
"To us the most important thing was making the county whole and making sure taxpayer money was restored," Lopez told the Times.
Shift commanders work 24-hour shifts followed by 48 hours off. They are salaried employees, so they do not receive overtime for working more than 40 hours a week. Instead, they receive a considerable pay increase when they're promoted to the position, the investigation noted.
However, the three shift commanders were independently recording how many holidays and hours over 40 they worked each week, calling it "flex time." They would use that accumulated flex time to take a day off and would submit the time sheet as though they had worked those hours.
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In interviews, the three shift commanders said the practice has been going on for years and they were just following what they had learned.
"We are human and guilty of complacency and doing things the way they've always been done," Diez said in his interview.
Branam, who oversaw the shift commanders, agreed that the practice has gone on for years. He also said in his interview that he had asked Chief Jones if employees could take a day off if they worked a holiday, and Jones agreed.
Jones disputed that.
Investigators also interviewed two former employees. Bill Singleton, former operations chief between 1996 and 2010, said "flex time" was never allowed during his tenure.
Another employee, Frank Fernandez, said flexing was going on openly when he was a shift commander between 2010 and 2013, though he didn't utilize the practice. Fernandez, now chief of the Treasure Island Fire Department, said division chiefs at that level were using flex time as well and they should be investigated, too.
There is no plan to expand the investigation, Haidermota said.
The shift commander position was created in 2006 to oversee operations during a 24-hour shift. There are three, and they alternate days.
The cost of the pay scheme goes beyond paying two employees to work the same shift. When a battalion chief fills in for a shift commander, they receive a 10 percent bump in pay for that shift, and a captain gets a 10 percent increase to fill in as acting battalion chief and the unit's driver gets a 10 percent increase to be acting captain.
The issue was first discovered when Preseau asked an employee in charge of the time system to create a code for shift commanders to track flex time. That raised red flags, Carnell told investigators, because managers are not allowed flex time. He took the problem to Jones on May 23 and began looking at the shift commanders' time cards. On June 8, Jones informed Deputy County Administrator Greg Horwedel of Carnell's finding.
The outside investigator was hired June 9.
All four individuals investigated were long-standing employees of the department. Their salaries were: Guincho, $116,084; Preseau, $107,806; Diez, $107,806; and Branam, $125,236.80.
Contact Steve Contorno at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813)226-3433. Follow @scontorno.