Shift-Trading Probed In Investigation Of Firefighters

ST. HELENS, OR – An internal investigation into shift-trading among Columbia River Fire & Rescue firefighters has turned up evidence of possible violations of ethics and tax laws, as well as activity that may amount to bribery and falsification of public records, documents obtained by the Spotlight indicate.

Shift-trading is a longstanding practice at many fire departments in Oregon and beyond. But CRF&R administrators expressed concern about the fire district being exposed to liability as a result of unequal shift-trading, in which one firefighter asks others to work his shifts without working for them in exchange.

The Spotlight obtained documents related to the investigation and spoke with district officials and firefighters knowledgeable about it.

At the request of the CRF&R administration, the documents indicate, the law firm Speer Hoyt LLC launched the investigation in November, after the district administration received what was characterized as an anonymous letter from a Rainier firefighter complaining about the practice.

Landscape work, airline passes traded for work time

A Jan. 14 report by attorney Russell Poppe, who interviewed more than a dozen firefighters during the course of the investigation, indicates that several firefighters acknowledged working shifts at a coworker’s request in exchange for money or other compensation.

One firefighter told Poppe he had been providing landscaping services from his business in exchange for other firefighters covering his shifts for more than 10 years. He said “over half the department” had traded shifts for services with him, according to the report.

Another firefighter acknowledged giving firefighters who traded shifts with him during the holiday season guest passes on Alaska Airlines as a “thank you.” Poppe wrote that he advised the firefighter that the practice appeared to violate government ethics law.

“The cash payments, trades of shift for services, and provision of airline tickets as an inducement to trade shifts were a probable violation of government ethics laws and a possible violation of state criminal statutes pertaining to bribery of public officials,” the conclusion to the report reads in part.

The document was redacted to remove names of firefighters before CRF&R released a copy to the Spotlight.

Poppe did not respond to a request for comment before press time.

The collective bargaining agreement negotiated between CRF&R and the St. Helens Professional Firefighters Association explicitly allows the “unlimited” trading of shifts between union firefighters. But the administration argues that provision does not allow firefighters to exchange shifts for “cash, goods and services.”

“It’s supposed to be shift-for-shift trading,” said Jay Tappan, CRF&R’s fire chief, on Monday, April 11. “If it’s anything other than a shift for a shift, then there’s a problem with it.”

Firefighters given ‘written warnings’ over activity

Warning letters have been handed out to at least some of the firefighters involved in the investigation. The Spotlight obtained a copy of one of the letters, which is dated April 8. It warns its recipient that he was “in direct violation” of the collective bargaining agreement and district rules and policies by working for another firefighter in exchange for landscaping work, and “may have exposure” on ethics and tax law violations.

“The District advises that engaging in similar conduct in the future will result in discipline up to and including termination and this notice serves as your Written Warning that this practice is neither acceptable nor will it be tolerated,” adds the letter, which was placed in the employee’s permanent file.

Grievances have been filed over most, if not all, of the warning letters by their recipients, according to Tappan. Those grievances have yet to be resolved.

No employees have been suspended or terminated over the investigation, Tappan told the Spotlight.

“We want to fix this thing going forward. I guess that’s maybe our bottom line is we want to fix the trading imbalance problem moving forward, and we’ll deal with the past appropriately,” Tappan said Friday, April 17.

He added, “We’re not trying to get anybody fired. We’re not trying to unduly punish anybody.”

After the investigation mostly wrapped up the following Monday, Tappan said the district’s legal team concluded that some of the activities being probed are allowable, while others merited only a warning. He did not go into detail.

“I think we’ve kind of gotten past the point where we think there’s big violations,” he said.

One of the documents provided to the Spotlight is a report from Bullard Law dated April 10, which advises Tappan that “somewhat surprisingly,” the U.S. Department of Labor appears to have no issue with unequal shift-trading. However, the report notes that CRF&R and its employees could be held liable by the Internal Revenue Service, Oregon Department of Revenue or the Public Employees Retirement System, and that firefighters have faced criminal cases in other states over shift-trading.

Chief says no knowledge of unequal trades

The documents provided to the Spotlight, and particularly Poppe’s report, paint a picture of widespread confusion at the district over the legality of the shift-trading, as well as its extent.

Several firefighters interviewed by Poppe told him the system CRF&R uses to track hours worked by individual firefighters is unreliable in its accounting. Some said they were unaware that trading shifts for money had occurred, with one telling Poppe he heard “what he took to be jokes” about $500 being offered for a shift trade and another characterizing what he had heard about shift-for-cash trading as “rumors,” while others said the activity was widespread, well-known, and even sanctioned by current and former supervisors.

For his part, Tappan said he was unaware of the issue before the “anonymous letter” last fall brought it to his attention. In fact, the claims were initially considered “frivolous,” according to a summary of findings by the CRF&R administration.

The administration and the union butted heads in the wake of Poppe’s firefighter interviews.

CRF&R instated a policy that would require shift trades to be made on a one-to-one basis and prohibit firefighters from trading shifts so they can work elsewhere, effective March 1.

“It became clear that we needed to get a box around some of this stuff,” said Ron Youngberg, one of two CRF&R division chiefs.

The union responded to the policy by filing a grievance before the policy was even scheduled to take effect, with a letter from union President Scott Haresnape and Vice-President Aaron Schrotzberger calling the new policy “an extreme violation of the CBA.”

“We view these changes as unduly punitive and as significant economic barriers to our members,” the Feb. 24 letter from the union leaders adds.

The policy was ultimately rescinded last month and the grievance resolved, according to Tappan and Aaron Peterson, union secretary and treasurer. The administration and union are now in talks to come up with a mutually agreeable policy on shift-trading, they said.

“We need to come up with something, but we’re just handling that through … regular discussions,” Peterson said, adding, “We’re in discussions to come up with something a little different.”

Peterson declined to offer details on the union’s position regarding shift trades, citing the ongoing talks.

Concerns about liability linger

The district does not track when trades occur, according to Tappan. That means a firefighter can trade a shift to a coworker, spend the time they were originally scheduled to work earning money from a side business, and then collect pay from the fire district for that time. The Bullard Law report suggests that may lead to incorrect tax payments and PERS “distortions,” as well as potential issues with Medicare, Social Security and healthcare eligibility.

Youngberg said last Friday the administration remains concerned about exposure to liability as a result of the shift-trading.

“It’s very complicated and complex. I think a can of worms got opened up that no one anticipated getting opened, and we’re trying to get the lid back on it in the appropriate manner,” Youngberg said, laughing. “I never would have dreamt that some of the impacts that we found are, actually, potentially there.”

He added, “If I work for you and you never pay me back, there’s a potential for an unfunded tax liability, both for the employee and the district. We’re trying to figure that out. We’re not saying there is, but it’s starting to look like there is.”

Tappan downplayed the question of liability, although he conceded Wednesday that it is “maybe dangling a little bit.” He said it will likely not be an issue unless it is reported to an agency that has a problem with the unpaid shift balances.

“I’m not saying we’re trying to dodge anything, but so far, nobody’s waved a particularly big red flag on that,” he said.

When asked about the possibility of a state investigation into the unequal trades, Youngberg said he didn’t want to comment on it.

“That’s going to be someone else’s decision,” he said.

From The Portland Tribune