CLEVELAND, OH – A Cuyahoga County grand jury indicted 13 Cleveland firefighters Wednesday, accusing them of illegally paying co-workers to cover most of their shifts — freeing them to work other full-time jobs or run their own companies while continuing to collect salaries and benefits from the city.
The indictments, which include counts of theft in office and soliciting or receiving improper compensation, might mark the first time firefighters anywhere in the country have faced felony charges for the illegal practice, commonly known as “caddying.”
Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty said in a news release that the firefighters each failed to work at least 2,000 hours — the equivalent of about one year — of their scheduled time. The most egregious case involved firefighter Calvin Robinson, who had colleagues work 8,456 hours on his behalf. That amounts to about 4 1/2 years, according to the release.
“The public’s trust was violated,” McGinty said in the release. “In addition to not working and receiving full pay, these individuals abused the system and collected retirement, vacation, medical and other benefits. They caused other firefighters to work multiple days without rest. Fatigued firefighters put the safety of the people [they serve] at risk as well as their fellow firefighters.”
The indicted firefighters, in addition to Robinson, 52, are: Kevin Dever, 42; Bernard Frohnapple, 51; Barry Kifus, 40; Kevin P. Kelly, 52; James Oleksiak, 44; Robert Graham, 50; Michael Milano, 53; Nicholas Ruccella, 49; Gary McNamara, 48; Peter Corso, 57; Thomas Jurcisin, 41; and Daniel Losteiner, 45.
They each face up to 18 months in prison and a $5,000 fine if convicted of the felony theft-in-office charge. Receiving improper compensation is a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine, as well as a seven-year exile from public employment.
Maureen Harper, communications director for the city, said in written statement that the firefighters in question will be “immediately relieved of duty” but will continue to get paid until an pre-disciplinary hearing. At that time, Harper said, the firefighters likely will be suspended without pay until their criminal cases are settled.
Firefighter union leaders released a statement, as well, indicating that they will stand by their members while continuing to learn the details of the accusations against them.
The indictments come nearly a year after city-hired special investigator, Ronald Bakeman, released his report based on his six-month probe to determine whether systemic payroll abuses in the Fire Department rose to the level of criminality.
City auditors first exposed the abuses by reviewing Fire Department records covering 2006 through 2010.
Under the union contract, firefighters are allowed to hand off scheduled work details to colleagues. But the hours must be paid back within one year, and state law prohibits public employees from paying a substitute or accepting under-the-table money to fill in for a colleague.
Bakeman, a retired federal prosecutor, recommended Robinson, Dever, Kifus, Milano and Scott Uline face prosecution for selling their shifts. Uline was not among those listed on the indictment. But Bakeman’s report stated that Uline worked for a private company as a heating and cooling technician and often paid a colleague $100 to work the first eight hours of his 24-hour shifts so he could work his other full-time job.
McGinty could not be reached Wednesday to comment on why Uline was not indicted.
Former firefighter Timothy Debarr also was a target of Bakeman’s investigation.
Debarr, who worked a second job selling industrial communications equipment, pleaded guilty in Common Pleas Court last April and was sentenced to 60 days — though he was released after serving a third of the time.
Thirteen firefighters suspected of accepting money to work for their colleagues were granted immunity from prosecution and administrative punishment in exchange for submitting to interviews, Bakeman wrote in his report.
Bakeman’s investigation, including a review of all electronic and handwritten payroll records, exposed shift trade abuses that were even more outrageous than the audits previously had identified, Bakeman wrote.
Robinson, who records show doubled as a substitute Cleveland teacher and an assistant Glenville High School football coach and operated a child care center, worked only one full shift in two years. Sometimes, Robinson orchestrated trades that allowed him to be paid by both the Cleveland school district and the Fire Department on the same day.
Dever, who worked for his family’s paving company, traded nearly twice as many hours as he worked and was credited for four training drills during shifts he traded away.
Milano traded more than 2,500 hours to operate a construction company that received lead-abatement contracts from the city and county. And Kifus managed to work as a high-earning real estate agent, who received accolades for performing in the top 5 percent of all Realtors nationally.
“Kifus paid his trade partner to take all the risks while he was a ‘mega-million-dollar’ real estate agent,” Bakeman wrote.
Bakeman debunked the defense frequently tendered by firefighters and their attorneys that the Fair Labor Standards Act considers shift trades to be a matter left to the two parties involved and does not require firefighters to pay back traded shifts. A 1993 U.S. Department of Labor opinion often cited by firefighters suggests that a firefighter could pay a colleague to cover a shift as a means of “payback.”
But Bakeman pointed out that the Fair Labor Standards Act includes a provision clarifying that the federal law should not be construed to impair a state’s ability to enforce its own criminal laws.