Everett Fire Inspector Caught In Fraud, Forced To Resign

EVERETT — The Everett Fire Marshal’s Office signaled a culture change with the forced resignation of one of its employees who had been caught skipping work, amounting to an alleged fraud of over $12,000 in wages.

Once known as “The Goon Squad,” the city’s fire inspectors had long been rumored to take midday naps and sign off on inspections for buildings they had not even entered, according to documents recently obtained by The Daily Herald.

One employee remembered being told he “needed to be trained to do less” because he was creating too much work, the records show. Another said he knew inspectors who never left the office.

Chad Harris, who had been with the fire department for 19 years, was one apparent holdover from the Fire Marshal’s Office’s old culture. He spent his last four years as an inspector.

An internal investigation and a follow-up state audit determined Harris fraudulently misreported his leave. In a seven-month period in 2019, he reportedly didn’t document 229 hours of time off, causing a loss to the city of at least $12,760. That doesn’t count the time Harris could have fraudulently taken off before 2019.

In a letter to Harris, Fire Chief Dave DeMarco noted the alleged fraud could amount to a felony, though prosecutors declined to pursue charges.

“After careful fact-finding and a complete investigation, I find no credible explanation for these discrepancies except that you have defrauded the payroll system and stolen those hours,” DeMarco wrote to Harris.

It wasn’t the first time Harris had been in trouble. He was suspended in 2008, when he and another firefighter wore their work uniforms to get into a concert for free, by giving the impression they were on official duty.

Harris’ last day was Jan. 21, 2020. However, his resignation did not become public until about a year later — catching members of the Everett City Council off guard last month in the lead-up to a public meeting.

In an interview, DeMarco said he would have rather fired Harris, but city attorneys advised it would be safer to let him resign to avoid a wrongful termination lawsuit.

Harris qualifies for a partial pension but not full benefits. He could not be reached for comment.

The city contracted Lynnwood-based PST Investigations to look into the fire inspector’s work behavior. The results of the investigation were obtained by The Daily Herald through a public records request.

‘More than a value’

Fire inspectors, by the nature of their job, have been afforded a great deal of independence. Until the past couple years, there was apparently little supervision to keep them in check, the internal investigation found.

Records show the Fire Marshal’s Office had a reputation for years as a place to be “retired on duty.” One employee reported it brought to mind the cliche of battered department veterans, kicking their feet up on the desk and taking it easy for the last few years of their career.

In an interview with The Daily Herald, Mayor Cassie Franklin said the city’s fire department was a top priority when she took office. It had an interim fire chief and an interim fire marshal. The city didn’t have a contract with the firefighters union. And a lawsuit from the union, about minimum staffing levels, was still making its way through the state Court of Appeals. Franklin promoted then-assistant chief DeMarco after a nationwide search. DeMarco hired Fire Marshal Kurtis Brown, who held the same job in Visalia, California, population 130,000.

The Fire Marshal’s Office has a budget of more than $1 million a year, with an eight-person team: one fire marshal, two assistant fire marshals, four inspectors and an accountant.

DeMarco credited Brown for instilling a stronger work ethic in the office. As new blood arrived, older employees retired. Some inspectors told the investigator the office has started to feel more like a place where they could gain new skills and move up the ladder.

As one of his first actions as chief, DeMarco started a process that let staff decide the department’s new core values and mission statement.

These days, five words appear on the sides of Everett’s fire rigs: tradition, professionalism, trust, respect and — in the largest print — integrity.

Integrity was the word spoken most often by staff during brainstorming, DeMarco wrote in a letter to the community.

“We have agreed that integrity is more than a value in this case,” he wrote. “It is literally the price of admission for an Everett Firefighter, and is interwoven in all aspects of our values.”

Bobby Chad days

Co-workers praised Harris’ work in the field, describing him as intelligent and detail-oriented. Whether he would show up was another question.

Harris, who goes by his middle name Chad, often took vacation or sick leave that was timed to extend weekends or vacations — what coworkers came to call “Bobby Chad days.” Fellow inspectors knew if something work-related made him emotional during the week, a Bobby Chad day was coming.

Supervisors gave him the benefit of the doubt. They figured if he had the time, he could take it off, no questions asked. And as an employee of the fire department for nearly two decades, it seemed likely he had the time.

Brown, the fire marshal, told the investigator that when he first arrived, he had trouble figuring out where everyone was throughout the day. So starting January 2019, he had people check in through a new electronic calendar, separate from the hours logged onto payroll. The new system would eventually catch Harris in apparent lies by creating a way to cross-reference when he claimed to have taken time off.

Brown noted Harris was the least productive by far. Other employees did hundreds of inspections. Harris couldn’t break 100.

“His numbers were awful,” Brown told the investigator.

The Fire Marshal’s Office came under pressure to do more inspections when the city implemented a new fee system based on square footage of a building. According to investigative documents, Assistant Fire Marshal Bill Armstrong said department leaders were talking about how to inspect every building in the city in one year.

“And we now generate funds for the city by our inspections,” Armstrong told the investigator. “If we’re doing that, we need to make sure that our guys are out there doing their inspections and then following up on their inspections and making sure that there’s no free time.”

At times Harris’ absence became a problem.

Armstrong recalled one day in May 2019 when a business in south Everett tested a fire pump and accidentally set off fire alarms and sprinklers for miles around. Fire crews throughout the city responded to the chaotic scene. Armstrong said he needed everyone from the office to get down there.

Only one person didn’t respond. A co-worker reported Harris had gone home, but it was unclear if he ever made a record of it. Armstrong was newly promoted at the time, so he decided at the time to “not muddy the waters,” he told the investigator.

‘Will you please audit me?’

Harris texted Armstrong on July 17, 2019, saying he was going home sick.

The supervisor replied with a thumbs up. But when Armstrong later looked in the payroll system, he saw Harris hadn’t made a record of leaving.

The assistant fire marshal then looked at another week he knew for certain Harris took off: the week of July 4, the busiest time of the year for any fire department.

Armstrong remembered Harris bringing a leave form to sign. It was notable, Armstrong said, because it was the first time Harris came to him to approve vacation. Armstrong remembered joking that this might be the last time Harris would be allowed to take off the week, as it had become a point of emphasis for the new fire marshal, according to documents.

Harris noted the time off on the calendar. He never reported it to payroll, according to the records.

In his interview with the investigator, Armstrong mentioned another instance that same month that Harris may have taken time off without telling anyone. Armstrong was returning from British Columbia at the end of a vacation with his wife. They were driving through Skagit County when they noticed one of Everett’s fire inspector trucks. It was 3:30 p.m. The earliest fire inspectors can get off, if they skip lunch, is 4 p.m., Armstrong noted. Harris lives near Big Lake, east of Mount Vernon. The truck was getting off at the exit to Highway 534, toward Harris’ home.

Toward the end of July, Armstrong reportedly told the fire marshal they needed to talk.

“Will you please audit me?” he recalled asking Brown, according to investigation documents.

Then they’ll audit everyone, including Harris, Armstrong reportedly told the fire marshal.

Department brass reviewed every employee’s records. They found that because the Fire Marshal’s Office and payroll didn’t communicate about scheduling, both departments were oblivious to discrepancies in Harris’ timesheets. His leave forms never made it to the payroll clerk.

Suspicious timing

Harris talked with department leaders including Chief DeMarco on July 31, 2019, about his missing vacation hours.

Afterward, Assistant Fire Marshal Steve Goforth noticed something on his desk. It was a leave slip from Harris, dated a week earlier.

Goforth could keep a messy desk. But he never lost track or misplaced any leave forms, he told the investigator. Besides, supervisors didn’t typically hang on to vacation or sick time paperwork.

Armstrong noted inspectors had 24/7 access to the building. He suspected the form was left on the desk after Harris met with the chief.

“That’s what it looks like to me,” he said. “That’s what it looks like to everyone.”

In separate interviews with fire department leaders and the private firm, Harris denied lying about his leave. He claimed he left his slips with a supervisor and didn’t know what happened to them after that.

At one point in the investigation, Harris tried to pin blame on another employee, claiming that person was out to get him.

Harris also reported Armstrong signed a sick leave form from July 17.

Armstrong maintained that he hadn’t signed anything for that day, and he reported that early on he had given Harris a chance to change his story. The fire inspector wouldn’t budge.

“It is what it is,” Harris reportedly said, and walked away.

‘The big word’

The independent investigator, former Mountlake Terrace Police Chief Greg Wilson, turned in his findings Dec. 3, 2019. Harris agreed to resign under threat of being fired. The local firefighters union didn’t fight it.

Last month, the alleged fraud came as a surprise to city council members, who weren’t told about it until they received a letter from DeMarco on Jan. 15, igniting a brief argument at the following council meeting.

Councilman Scott Murphy questioned Mayor Franklin’s commitment to transparency. Councilwoman Liz Vogeli fired back, questioning if Murphy was “running a campaign from the dias.”

DeMarco defended his department’s work at the meeting Jan. 20, saying they caught the misreported time because of the new systems he and his leadership team put in place.

“To be completely honest, the systems this fire administration inherited have all had to be rebuilt: the accountability systems, the financial systems, the budgeting systems,” DeMarco told the city council. “And while this fraud is a shame, it is the rebuilding of those systems, and the ability to draw a conclusion all the way to the end, which led to the resignation of an employee that did not deserve to be a firefighter.”

In a follow-up letter, the city attorney wrote to Murphy that the city was not required to notify the council of every personnel investigation, unless it involved a lawsuit. In this case, city leaders decided to send a letter to the council as a courtesy, because the case had garnered media attention.

In the future, Franklin agreed to notify whenever the auditor’s office got involved in city business. At the Jan. 27 meeting, Murphy said he wanted to take that promise and turn it into city code. Vogeli supported the idea.

In an interview with The Herald, DeMarco said he believes the city has taken precautions to prevent a repeat of a case like this. The department started using a new payroll system at the start of the year. Now employees submit their leave requests through the computer, meaning tampering is much less likely. There’s no paperwork that can go missing. Furthermore, the fire marshal’s staffers are required to check in with their supervisor at the start and end of every work day.

For the fire chief, Harris’ resignation was about more than alleged fraud. It was a test of his department’s new core values. In his letter to Harris, he wrote that the inspector violated a range of city and department policies.

“The most egregious of those in my eyes are the violations against the only word you (could recall from memory) from the values sticker on your vehicle: Integrity,” DeMarco wrote. “You have taken advantage of the department and the community by acting without integrity when accounting for your time. You have damaged the public trust and in so doing you have damaged the entire organization.”

A timeline of fraud

April 9, 2001: Chad Harris is hired as a firefighter with the Everett Fire Department.

March 6, 2016: Harris is promoted to fire inspector.

Oct. 8, 2018: Kurtis Brown is hired as the new Everett fire marshal.

January 2019: Employees begin tracking their leave time on an electronic calendar.

July 17, 2019: Assistant Fire Marshal Bill Armstrong gets a text from Harris, saying he’s going home sick. Armstrong finds out he never filled out a leave form.

August 2019: The Fire Marshal’s Office conducts an audit.

Sept. 13, 2019: Lynnwood-based PST Investigations begins an independent investigation.

Sept. 17, 2019: The City of Everett notifies the Washington State Auditor’s Office potential fraud and loss of funds.

Dec. 3, 2019: PST turns in the results of its investigation.

Dec. 26, 2019: DeMarco writes a letter to Harris, informing him of the findings.

Jan. 31, 2020: Harris resigns, under threat of being fired.

Dec. 28, 2020: The state Auditor’s Office turns in its findings.

January 2021: The department launches a new digital payroll system.

Jan. 4, 2021: The Daily Herald submits a public records request for the investigation files.

Jan. 14, 2021: DeMarco writes a letter to city council, informing them of the alleged fraud.

From www.heraldnet.com

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