IG Investigates “Overtime Scam” in the Fire Department

By Adam Pagnucco.

Last week, Montgomery County Inspector General (IG) Megan Davey Limarzi released a report titled, “Overtime Costs and Redundancies in the MCFRS EEO/Diversity Office.” The title may be sleepy but the allegations investigated by the IG were not. Multiple fire service employees blew the whistle on specific uses of overtime at the fire department, with one calling the matter an “overtime scam.”

Overtime has been a controversial issue inside the fire department for many years, but this report is not a generalized analysis of the issue. It is an investigation of a particular program inside the fire service: its Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO)/Diversity Office. The EEO/Diversity office did not have its own approved positions; instead it had a captain and a lieutenant who were “detailed to the Office of the Fire Chief on a full-time basis” to carry out the office’s work in addition to a number of other staff who were assigned “sporadically.”

Strangely, the office was set up despite rejection of dedicated staff for it by the county’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The report states:

During the FY2018 budget season, MCFRS requested, but did not receive, an additional captain position to focus on EEO concerns… The Fire Chief told the Inspector General and her staff that although this request was denied by the OMB, he continued with the program because he believed it to be critical. Since then, he has detailed two employees full-time to the work of the office, neither of which is an approved position.

On the nature of the office’s work, the report states:

We were unable to obtain metrics related to the EEO function of the office, such as complaints received, reports written, or referrals made to MCFRS [Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service] management or the County Office of Human Resources, Equal Employment Opportunity Compliance & Diversity Management Division. Staff members interviewed agreed that the EEO/Diversity Office was not engaged in formal investigations, but rather engaged in “fact-finding” and training regarding EEO matters and complaints.

The report also notes duplication and redundancy between the work scope of the EEO/Diversity Office and other offices in county government, including the Equal Employment Opportunity Compliance and Diversity Management Division of the Office of Human Resources and the fire service’s Office of Investigative Programs, Fire & Rescue Training Academy, Recruitment Section and Community Risk Reduction Section.

In Fiscal Year 2019, the office generated costs of $919,000, of which $908,000 was overtime and the rest was compensated leave. The cost was roughly 10% of the fire service’s total overtime spending. The overtime allowed regularly exceeded limits established by the fire chief and was assigned outside Telestaff, the scheduling system used by county public safety agencies.

So what’s the problem here? The IG’s investigation was spawned by multiple complaints from inside the fire department during calendar year 2019. The report states:

The OIG received information regarding the lack of transparency within the EEO/Diversity Office. For example, we obtained a document purporting to be a reporting of sentiments of MCFRS operational staff concerning the MCFRS EEO/Diversity Office. The document concludes that the “EEO Team” is viewed as causing “division/disruption in the department”; “untouchable/beyond reproach”; lacking “interaction with all people in a station”; and ignores “most people in the field”.

A former MCFRS staff member told OIG staff that the EEO/Diversity Officer has complete freedom to work and assign overtime at his discretion, it was common knowledge within MCFRS that the work of the EEO/Diversity Office was an “overtime scam”, and it was not communicated how overtime was assigned for that unit. Another MCFRS staff member told the OIG that he believed that there had been numerous occurrences where EEO/Diversity Office representatives working overtime appeared at events that were already being handled by MCFRS staff during their normal shifts. That staff member questioned the use and abuse of overtime by the EEO/Diversity Office. In a third communication to the OIG, a MCFRS staff member questioned the use of overtime and events attended by those assigned to the EEO/Diversity Office.

The report lists – but does not name – four individuals associated with the program who earned overtime in amounts ranging from $85,511 to $174,008 in 2018. Of these individuals, the report states:

All three of the career employees included on the of MCFRS EEO/Diversity Office website as either the EEO/Diversity Officer or one of his deputies appear on a list of 20 County employees with the greatest amount of overtime pay in 2018. At the same time, in 2018, the MCFRS EEO/Diversity Officer was the second highest paid County employee and an employee listed as an MCFRS EEO/Diversity Coordinator was the fourth highest paid County employee, buoyed by overtime.

So let’s review this. The fire service asked for an additional position for the EEO/Diversity office but was turned down by the county’s Office of Management and Budget during the Leggett administration. The fire service staffed the office anyway with employees who were detailed from elsewhere and paid them more than $900,000 in FY19, mostly in overtime. The overtime exceeded limits set by the fire chief and was scheduled outside of the system usually used by county public safety agencies. Three of the employees who worked for the office were among the highest-compensated employees in county government principally because of the overtime they were paid. There are no metrics on the office’s EEO work. The office’s work scope is at least partially duplicative with no fewer than five other offices in county government. Multiple employees complained about the office’s overtime practices with one calling its work an “overtime scam.”

The IG began reviewing the office in October 2019. In January 2020, the office “ceased operations” with the fire chief proposing that its work be conducted by a new unit that would also use overtime. That cannot be the end of this story. The following two things must happen.

1. Chief Administrative Officer Andrew Kleine must investigate the activities of the now-closed EEO/Diversity Office. The IG’s report does not draw a conclusion on the legitimacy of the office’s spending, although it does note the unavailability of “metrics related to the EEO function of the office” and contains allegations of overtime abuse. Kleine must determine whether this use of $919,000 in overtime and compensatory leave applied to legitimate work. If that turns out not to be the case, any involved individuals – both those who profited and those who enabled it – must be disciplined and restitution must be obtained. Kleine’s findings, whatever they are, must be made public.

If Kleine doesn’t investigate this, he owns it.

2. Since there is an allegation that the office’s work was an “overtime scam,” State’s Attorney John McCarthy must investigate whether any criminal violations occurred.

In the meantime, the county council must demand answers. The integrity of county government spending is at stake.