Eric Zorn, Chicago Tribune, August 11, 2011
I believe I now know why Mayor Rahm Emanuel was so measured, so passionless, in responding to reports last week about widespread mileage-reimbursement fraud in the city’s Fire Prevention Bureau.
Word had leaked out that an investigation by city Inspector General Joseph Ferguson found 54 employees in that division had submitted more than $100,000 in bogus expense claims in a single year–a brazen alleged theft of scarce public resources.
Yet instead of vowing to make an example of the offenders to underscore his commitment to high ethical standards, Emanuel fretted that the expense of trying to fire them would likely exceed the amount of the loss, at least for that one year.
The Fire Prevention Bureau happens to be a haven for minority firefighters in a department that is otherwise, problematically, predominantly white.
Overall, the Chicago Fire Department is roughly 70 percent white even though the city is only about 40 percent white.
But the Fire Prevention Bureau is at least 70 percent black and Hispanic, according to Gregory Boggs, president of Chicago’s African-American Firefighters and Paramedics League.
Fair enough. But the upshot, Boggs said, is that 83 percent of the firefighters implicated in the IG’s investigation of mileage fraud are black and Hispanic.
This would be awkward enough under any circumstances. But is particularly awkward given the federal appellate court ruling in May that the city must pay some $30 million in damages to blacks who applied for Fire Department jobs but were denied based on the results of what courts have found to have been a discriminatory entrance exam.
Additionally, the court ruled the city must hire 111 new African-American firefighters.
Deputy Fire Commissioner Nick Russell, a former president of the African-American Firefighters and Paramedics League, was active in bringing attention to the lack of diversity in the department and has been in charge of the Fire Prevention Bureau since the summer of 2008.
The department decision to reassign Russell in the wake of the reported scandal was the focus of a protest rally on behalf of the accused firefighters at St. Sabina Catholic Church on the South Side earlier this week.
Boggs said Russell and the others implicated in the investigation were merely following the long-standing practice in the bureau of inflating mileage reports to compensate for the actual expenses of insuring and operating personal vehicles on city business.