Firefighters Feel the Heat

Prosecutors and auditors can see smoke, and now they're looking for flames

Things are heating up at the Miami firefighters' union. The boys there are hot under the collar because of a recent column I wrote. Let's just say I won't be invited to the fireman's ball this year. (Okay, that's enough.)

A few weeks ago I wrote about problems inside the Miami chapter of the International Firefighters Association, Local 587, the union for the city's fire department ("The Firefighter Who Burned His Colleagues," April 10). Union officials discovered that their treasurer had squandered roughly $16,000 of union money on personal expenses. He also told city officials he was conducting union business when in fact he was taking about 62 hours of vacation.

Local 587's brass told rank-and-file members they were going to handle the situation internally. The union, they said, was not a public entity and no public money was involved. They demanded the treasurer, Keith Beckler, pay back the pilfered cash, and they fixed the books to reflect that he used vacation time, not union time, for a trip to Disney World. Because it was a union matter, none of this would be reflected in Beckler's personnel file. Case closed.

Prosecutor Joe Centorino (above) and city auditor Victor Igwe (below) have opened separate inquiries into the Miami firefighters' union
Steve Satterwhite
Prosecutor Joe Centorino (above) and city auditor Victor Igwe (below) have opened separate inquiries into the Miami firefighters' union
Steve Satterwhite

I pointed out that it wasn't necessarily their call to discipline Beckler in-house. For one thing, he may have committed a crime (former Miami Police Chief Donald Warshaw went to prison for doing something similar). For another, firefighters are public servants who hold a position of trust. Plus it's an inherent conflict of interest for union officials to investigate one of their own.

In addition I wrote that public money was indeed involved. In the contract between the city and union, 6000 hours are set aside annually for "union leave time," meaning union members can use those hours to perform union business while still drawing their city salary. I recommended that an independent agency review the union's books to make sure everything added up. Then I quoted a few firefighters who thought Beckler should be held accountable and the case investigated criminally. They declined to give their names for fear of retaliation.

Quoting unnamed firefighters really fried the underpants of Local 587's leadership. "I have just finished reading the article in the Miami New Times relating to the way this local handled the Keith Beckler issue. How do I start? What a bunch of bull#&@%." So began one piece in the Local 587's newsletter, Flashover, by union vice president Ruben Bargueiras. "To the person who would rather hide behind the skirt of a reporter... you are nothing but a cowardly punk." (Hey! Easy, pal. I gave up skirts when I stopped shaving my legs.) Union president Ed Pidermann wrote: "This scenario has now reached the point that the State Attorney's Office has reportedly been asked to investigate the case and the fire chief has been questioned by the city's administration on it."

Prosecutors have in fact begun an inquiry. "Yes, we're looking into the matter," confirms Joe Centorino, head of the public-corruption unit at the State Attorney's Office, declining further comment. And the city's auditor general, Victor Igwe, revealed that his office has initiated a review of the union's records.

So I don't blame union officers for being upset. I brought some serious heat down on them. But someday Pidermann and his union brothers may just thank me. The union might very well have been a train about to jump its tracks. Beckler was simply the first loose railroad tie. If so, Local 587 would not be alone. All around the county, authorities are pummeling public-sector unions. In 2001 the head of the county's transit union pleaded guilty to stealing $100,000 in union money to feed a gambling habit. A year later the county's Office of the Inspector General investigated the Dade County Association of Fire Fighters and concluded that, for a 21-month period, it was not possible to account for $640,000 worth of union leave time. Now 2003 brings us the FBI investigation into showboat union boss Pat Tornillo, former head of United Teachers of Dade, for his profligate spending of his union's money.

There's a nasty pattern here, folks, though it can't be attributed to unions alone. There is simply a lack of oversight. County and city managers are loath to poke their heads into organized labor's business. These are the people with whom they need to negotiate contracts worth millions of dollars. No one wants to kick the sand on that anthill. Challenging a few piddling hours on the public payroll is just not worth the headache. But padding union leave time to catch your kid's softball game eventually leads to more serious abuses. Eventually someone will end up in jail.

City auditor Igwe says he has questions about the city's and the fire department's methods for monitoring union time. "We're concerned about the lack of controls," he says dryly. In fact when current Miami Fire Chief Bill "Shorty" Bryson took over the department in 2001, the ledgers left by his predecessors were in disarray. "I found there were not good records for how much [union] time was used in previous years," Bryson says. "We didn't know if they used 10,000 or zero hours because records were so screwed up." No wonder Beckler thought he could get away with a vacation on the union's nickel.

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