Burn, Baby, Burn

Don't show up for work? Don't worry.

Lisa Hart has a lot of leisure time.

In the past two years, the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue lieutenant has burned through 865 hours of taxpayer-funded vacation and sick leave. That's almost five months.

Oh, and she also blew off another 2.5 months of unpaid time, records show.

But that's not all. The $89K-per-year veteran failed to supervise 38 recruits who are supposed to keep you and me safe. Worse, her bosses apparently covered for her.

"The fire department has to correct what has happened," says Miami-Dade Commissioner Rebeca Sosa, vice chair of the health and public safety committee, "and make sure it doesn't happen again,"

The Hart scandal, which the fire department is investigating, is just the latest problem at one of the county's largest and worst-run departments. In the past four years, the Miami-Dade Inspector General and law enforcement have nabbed dozens of firefighters for abusing overtime, double-dipping, and falsifying timesheets. Among the complaints:

• A criminal probe in 2004 revealed three lieutenants had submitted fraudulent overtime reports that earned them hundreds of thousands of dollars. One pleaded guilty and agreed to repay more than $125,000.

• In 2006, the Miami Herald reported that businesses and the public had forked out $10.6 million for unmonitored assignments. One fireman had allegedly logged 99 hours without a break. Others had been paid for working in two places at the same time.

• Last year, firefighter Alvio Dominguez was arrested for taking $7,235 in illegal reimbursements from the county's troubled tuition reimbursement program.

If proven, the Hart case trumps all of them. Hired by the fire department in 1993 at an $875 biweekly salary, she has generally steered clear of trouble. According to her personnel record, she has never been relieved of duty or suspended. In 2005, she was promoted to lieutenant.

The latest scandal began when Hart was reassigned to the fire department's Probationary Development Office on March 12, 2007. As one of four training officers, she was charged with tracking the progress of 38 rookie firefighters during their first year. The lieutenant was to visit them at their stations and give them five tests to check their competency.

However, Hart didn't monitor her rooks, according to a packet of records submitted anonymously to the fire department's human resources director and Miami-Dade Police Major Juan Santana, head of the public corruption unit. The absenteeeism was just the beginning.

Logs delivered along with the packet show, for example, that from November 12, 2007, through this past February 29, Hart used 140 hours — 3.5 weeks — of annual holiday and sick leave. She wasn't paid for an additional 15 days of unexcused absences. What's more, on the days she claims to have worked, she was nowhere to be found, the complaint alleges. Hart didn't return three phone calls seeking comment.

"Hart's absence was well known in the training bureau," the anonymous tipster wrote, adding that Hart did not obey a requirement by her supervisor, Capt. Jerome Byrd Sr., to call him whenever she was scheduled to work. In an e-mail, Byrd wrote to Hart: "I will mark you AWOL if I don't hear from you."

By January 24, Byrd wrote to his superior, Division Chief Dave Downey: "Just like the last pay period, I have not had any communication with Lt. Hart as to the days she worked. I don't feel comfortable submitting the time she e-mailed.... [She] still has not responded to the call-in procedure."

Downey's response: "I will address this with her. In the meantime, if she submitted a timesheet reflecting hours worked, you can simply record those hours. Ultimately, it is her responsibility." Whether Downey spoke to Hart is unknown. Downey, a 20-year veteran who makes $151,576 annually, did not return a call requesting comment.

At the beginning of March, it became apparent that the probationary firefighters under Hart's watch had not been evaluated or tested, according to the complaint letter. So the higherups — Downey and Capt. Natosha Gonzales — devised a plan to test all 161 probationary firefighters, including the 38 assigned to Hart, during one-day training sessions in early April. All were pulled off their shifts and paid overtime.

Another screwup occurred, the tipster claims, when Gonzales administered a partial final exam and provided the answers to all but one of the classes. (According to her personnel file, Gonzales — who earns $118,859 a year — was suspended from September 2004 to January 2006 for conduct unbecoming a county employee).

The incident placed the public and other firefighters in danger in two ways. First, rookies might not have known the correct procedures. And second, they weren't available to cover their shifts, which either left citizens in danger or cost taxpayers extra to cover.

Fire department spokeswoman Elizabeth Calzadilla-Fiallo acknowledged that the incident described in the note is under investigation. She declined to comment about any possible disciplinary action against Hart, Byrd, Downey, or Gonzales until the internal investigation is complete, but acknowledged all are currently on the job.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Carlos Gimenez, a former City of Miami fire chief, says if the probe reveals Hart was falsifying timesheets and her superiors covered it up, they will be held accountable. "The good thing is that this has been brought to light," Gimenez says. "I believe that these individuals will pay the price for wasting taxpayer money."

 
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