Pfleger: ‘Don’t make Chief Russell the fall guy’

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Caption: churchbannerChicago Deputy Fire Department Commissioner Nicholas Russell (center) called for amnesty in the city’s Inspector General’s recommendation to fire 54 firefighters accused of padding their mileage. He agrees with Mayor Rahm Emanuel that this is not a personnel problem but rather one of a culture that needs fixing but not at the expense of good firefighters. Photo by: Retired Chicago Firefighter Edward O. Guidry.standing by Russell, his son, Christian,  (left) Cook County Comm. Deborah Sims (D-5th), Father Michael L. Pfleger, Senator Jacqueline Collins (D-16th), Ald. Latasha Thomas (17th) (right) Retired Fire Captain James Winbush (second to the right in red shirt) and more than 500 supporters. The rally was held at Saint Sabina Church, 1210 W. 78th Place.


Firemen seek amnesty, call for end to ‘systemic’ racism in CFD

By Chinta Strausberg


Calling for justice and fairness to prevail, Father Michael L. Pfleger Thursday said he stands by black firemen who are calling for an amnesty on the Inspector General’s (IG) push to fire 54 firefighters accused of padding their mileage– a policy they say is not a personnel problem but rather a cultural practice that needs fixing, but not at their expense.

Flanked with more than 500 supporters, 31-year Chicago Deputy Fire Department Commissioner Nicholas Russell and Fire Captain Annette Nance-Holt, attended a press conference at the Saint Sabina Church, 1210 W. 78th Pl., hosted by Father Michael L. Pfleger.

“I stand with them because I do not want an African American who I know to be a person of integrity to have been placed in a department where there has been a systemic problem and he’s asked to clean it up and now they want to make him the fall guy for what’s been done for generations,” said Pfleger.

“Unless they can find evidence of any criminal or illegal act that Chief Russell has done, they need to fire the people who were behind it and not the man who was sent to clean it up,” Pfleger said.

Agreeing with Pfleger was Cook County Comm. Deborah Sims who also doesn’t think the firemen should be fired. “I think that is unfair. I think there should have been a warning or they should have been on notice that what ever was going on is not what is supposed to be happening because this isn’t something that was new.

“If you were told to do something one way and you continue to do it that way, you were told to do it that way,” she said. “When it changed, somebody should have notified them that it was changed or that they were doing it wrong and that was not the way they should have been trained to do something.

“I don’t think that Nick Russell and the other commissioner should be the fall guy for this. I think this is unfair. I think it is unjust. They should have been warned or put on notice or made to pay restitution. I think that would have been the appropriate thing to do,” Sims said.

Senator Jacqueline Collins (D-16th) said, “I think there is a legitimate question to be raised, “Is Chicago Deputy Fire Department Commissioner Nicholas Russell a victim of scapegoatism for a mileage reimbursement policy initiated, supported and condoned under previous administrations”?

Retired Fire Captain James Winbush agrees saying the recommendation to fire 54 firefighters mirrors the past. “This speaks as a systemic response to African American men who have taken a high profile position who attempt to remedy the problems of racism within the Chicago Fire Department.”

Winbush gave himself as an example of alleged racism. “After I had done a program called ‘Smoke Busters’ which increased the level of African Americans including women for employment in the Chicago Fire Department, I was demoted by then Fire Commissioner Louis G. Galante.

Winbush said former Fire Commissioner John Brooks, the second African American fire commissioner, “after doing a sterling job was demoted by Ray Orosco, Mayor Daley’s chief-of-staff, and who forced him into retirement with a threat of a demotion. All charges were false.

“Larry Muse, who was the former Deputy Commissioner in charge of the Fire Prevention Bureau, when instituting the rules and regulations from the building code against political cronies, was forced into retirement,” said Winbush.

“Nick Russell, in clear violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, is being retaliated against for the Lewis vs. City of Chicago job discrimination lawsuit which the city of Chicago lost 9-0 in the U.S. Supreme Court forcing the hiring of 111 black firefighters,” Winbush contended.

“It is consistent with the systematic racism that even Mayor Daley admitted to and that his father practiced also appears to be continuing in this new administration,” said Winbush.  Referring to plans to fire 54 firefighters, he added: “I believe this is pay back for the hiring of the 111 African American applicants who took the exam in 1995.

“That is a systemic problem that the current mayor talked about. These are phony, fake charges, and amnesty is the solution to this problem,” he said referring to the IG’s recommendation to fire 54 firefighters accused of padding their mileage.

Russell, 59, who came on the Fire Department during the 1980 strike, and Nance-Holt agreed with Mayor Rahm Emanuel who recently said this mileage reimbursement dispute is not a personnel problem but rather a cultural one.

Nance-Holt is upset over the IG’s recommendation to fire Russell who is scheduled to retire next year. She believes officials are trying to “throw him under the bus for something he has not done.”

They attended a rally hosted by Saint Sabina’s Father Michael Pfleger held in support of the Fire Prevention inspectors who are on the firing line with the city’s Inspector General Joe Ferguson who, according to media reports, is recommending the firing of 54 firefighters he believes padded their mileage reimbursement to the tune of $100,000 in just 2009 alone.

“We are not the culture of the Fire Department,” said Russell referring to African American and firemen of color. “That’s another culture that propagated this.” The mileage for firefighters is predicated on the IRS limitation on what an employee can allow for reimbursement of its employees.

The last firefighter contract states they are paid .33-cents a mile and a maximum of $350.00 a month or $17.15 a day for the 20-days they work. Also, they must have premium insurance in order for them to drive their vehicle. They must include the city of Chicago as a rider and have a $500,000 liability. This increases their insurance payments. Russell said firefighters also pay for their own parking tickets at $50.00 each and red light tickets, which cost more.

“Not trying to minimize anything, but when you look at all of the facts, the Fire Department inspectors are working at a loss to come to work because they have to pay $3 and $4 a gallon for gas, and they have to do maintenance on their car all within the mandates of the 33-cents a mile/ maximum  $350,” said Russell.

Explaining, Russell said the City Council just ratified their new contract ending in 2012. This contract allowed for an increase of the IRS’ multiplier based on what the gas price is. However, the Fire Department Prevention inspectors cannot get that increase as long as they are under contract with the city.  They have to wait until the new contract comes.

“Our Fire Inspectors have retroactive mileage from 2007 to the present, but because of this investigation, these moneys were never disbursed. The city still has that. They never reimbursed the inspectors on mileage from 2007 until the present. They still have that money which is what they are going to use to pay off what they claim was the overage that the inspectors had,” explained Russell.

According to Russell, the maximum mileage they can get is .55 cents a mile and a maximum of $550 a month. From 2007 to 2011, it was 33 cents a mile and $350 maximum. To get the $550, you have to drive 1200 miles in a month but nobody has come closed to that. The mileage has been dropping incrementally and steadily since the investigation.

Referring to Fire Commissioner Robert Hoff, who was the former first deputy, Russell said, “Hoff wrote the order for mileage. He was aware of all of this as the first deputy.” Hoff was Russell’s immediate supervisor.  “All of the things we were telling him about the mileage, he incorporated into his general order dated June 1, 2010. Now, they are saying he’s the reason mileage has dropped and that I am the culprit when I didn’t do anything,” said Russell.

“We were doing things and assisting him to get to this point,” explained Russell.

Some of his colleagues feel Russell is a political target because   he was the president of the African American Firefighters League in 1995 when his group started the 1995 candidate’s lawsuit against the city of Chicago trying to force the city to hire black applicants who had passed the exam but were never called. That case dragged on for 15-years.

They won in the Supreme Court after a 9-0 vote by the Justices and the case went back to the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the High Court’s ruling and remanded it back to a lower court for a payout remedy.  The City was ordered to pay $30 million to 6,000 applicants who passed the exam and to hire 111 black firemen including adjusting their pensions as if they had been hired in 1995. The city had said they had waited too long to file the lawsuit but was overruled by the High Court.

Back then; Corporation Counsel Mara Georges called the ruling a partial victory because it capped the payout at $30 million with 21 fewer litigants. The lawsuit spurred numerous protests and press conferences by black firemen and Russell was in the lead on seeking justice for the applicants.

“The city of Chicago has gone to every length not to hire these individuals,” said Russell. “Now all their remedies have failed and the candidates must be hired by federal mandate. They are about to start; now the city is trying to force me to retire. They want to demote me.

“I feel that I have been doing a yeoman’s job and so have my inspectors,” said Russell. “We have increased revenues ever since I’ve been there and with reduced manpower.” In 2009, he had an eight percent increase in the 2008 numbers of $1.254 million. In 2010, we increased that to $1.264 million. We have been doing fantastic in terms of inspections in generating money and all the while the miles have been dropping; so they have been doing it with less miles, asking for less mileage reimbursement and continued the task of protecting the citizens.”

Russell said his firefighters do jobs for the citizens, commercial units, high-rises and protect the firefighters. “We inspect buildings that can be potentially dangerous…. My motto is ‘we are there before you need us’ and the importance of fire prevention cannot be misjudged and or under-evaluated. If you do, a lot of bad things” can happen.

As an example, Russell said thanks to a $400,000 grant to install 10-year lithium fire smoke detectors in a nine-month period. Russell said he requested that there be unit performance awards for those who installed the detectors.

“They were installed in the ten fire fatality areas, block-by-block.” He said the commissioner did issue the unit citation awards but then requested that they be sent back. “It seems like there is a kind of double-edge sword here. If you do good work and you are appreciated for it, you reward the individual or you don’t. It seems to be a little more political than it should be,” he said.

Asked if this move to push him out is linked to his organizing around the federal lawsuit, Russell said, “The old school politics years ago is when one minority got promoted, two had to be fired.” Asked if the recommendation to fire 54 firefighters could offset the cost of the lawsuit, Russell said, “Every month they don’t hire these 111, it’s $500,000 in interest. It’s a multi-million lawsuit.” With this court decision, Blacks are progressing.

However, when Russell joined the department in 1980 during the Mayor Jane Byrne era, there were only 300 black firemen. The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. settled that controversial fire strike. When it ended, Russell said it went to 1,000 African American firefighters but today there are almost 800 blacks in the department.

“So instead of increasing our numbers, it’s decreased which is why we sued in 1995,” he explained. “That’s a 30-year period. You would think there would be some increased. We fought for 15-years to get these 111 on because there was a discriminatory usage of that list which was proven in federal court.

“We are 15-years behind in hiring those men and women who would if they had come on in a timely fashion would have been promoted, taken promotional exams and be within the flow of rank and file,” said Russell.

“The reason we sued was if we cannot replicate ourselves, we’d become extinct. If they don’t bring on black firefighters, there won’t be any black firefighters. If they don’t bring on Hispanic firefighters, there won’t be any because what ever they don’t bring on” they pool from non-black and brown ethnicities he says are already amply represented.

According to Russell, there are close to 5,000 firefighters of whom 22 percent are black. He explained that prior to the 1995 test, the Fire Department, desegregated in 1965, had a consent decree in 1973, which had a 50 percent minority-hiring quota.

According to Russell, Black firefighters filed a lawsuit in 1973.   The federal government enjoined the city in a lawsuit. John Mitchell under President Nixon and 26 lawyers from the U.S. Justice Department sued the city of Chicago.

“They entered into a consent decree with no finding of guilt that the city needed to hire black firefighters. “Mayor Richard J. Daley refused. Federal funds were cut off from the city. From 1973 to 1977, nobody was hired in the Fire Department,” said Russell.  “They rehired people they had fired.

“In 1977 at the death of Mayor Richard J. Daley, they hired an all black class to fulfill the consent decree. That was the Class of 1977.  Those classes were all black. They were called ’30-day wonders.’ They were in the Fire Academy for 30-days because they had to get manpower on the street,” Russell said.

“At that time, there were four-men companies, people were not being promoted, all kinds of things were occurring. The city was at a standstill and the Fire Department suffered,” he recalled. “Those blacks came on and they became the basis of the hierarchy that affirmative action assisted and helped.” They were the class of 1977. “They were the first college graduates we had on the job.” The next group was the Class of 1980, which was the strike.

When asked what does he want the city to do, Russell said the mileage issue is a systematic problem that began a long time ago. He said in 1996 the contract called for paying them .22-cents a mile with a maximum of $210 a month or $10-a-day. “That does not offset anything,” he said.

He compared it today’s $350 maximum. “Today, it takes almost $70 to fill your tank up. To get one parking ticket, it cost $50” and they have to pay for their own insurance. “You are using an employee’s car, their gas, insurance. It shouldn’t be a mileage they’re getting. This should be called maintenance and then you wouldn’t have this problem.”

The union stewards have asked for these suggested reimbursements. Russell believes this is not “politically expedient” to do this.

Nance-Holt, past president of the African American Firefighters and Paramedic’s League, is angry that the Inspector General is seeking to fire the 54 firemen including Russell.

“It’s horrible to take a man’s career who has done so much for everyone and try to throw him under the bus for something that has been going on forever and that he was trying to clean up. It doesn’t say a lot about treating people fairly,” said Nance-Holt.

“Nick has given his life to the Fire Department. It’s not fair to try and throw him at the end of his career and accused him of something he did not do.” She also has strong feelings about the recommendation to wipe out 54 firemen involved in the mileage scandal.

“I don’t think it is right to suggest that or say they should be fired without investigating the history of the Fire Prevention Bureau and seeing what kind of training was done prior to this investigation to see if these people clearly understood” the procedure of applying for reimbursement for mileage, said Nance-Holt.

“The ethics training teaches you something totally different,” she said. “Did they ever have that training? Some of these people have been with the department since the 1980’s and they never had that kind of training like that until June 1, 2009 or 2010.”

Nance-Holt said the inspectors must have the city of Chicago on their insurance rider or they will get suspended.
They have to pay for all of their own gas traveling back and forth to all of these inspections, and they have to improve the maintenance on their car and all this for 32-cents a day” she says cannot pay for the expense of driving a car especially given the rise in the cost of gas.

“I want the city to look at the history of mileage,” she said.  Nance-Holt said it is strange that one division gets targeted for mileage when she says there are other divisions within the city that also practice this vehicle reimbursement policy.

“It just so happens that Nick Russell was the person who was over the Fire Prevention Bureau at this time. He was sent there to clear up. Why didn’t they allow him to clear it up? Why didn’t they allow him to continue to do what he was supposed to do in clearing up the mileage, which he was doing? I don’t understand that. They need to look into the whole picture of what mileage is and what it does.”

She suggested that the department should give the inspectors a set amount of money a month. “We know they are not going to buy cars or have a pool of cars and pay for fuel. They need to come up with a better way to address this including training on the use of mileage.”

Comm. Hoff spoke on the recommendations in the IG report saying: “as always, any such recommendations will be handled on an individual basis and in accordance with the collective bargaining agreement.”

Larry Langford, a spokesperson for the Chicago Fire Department, said, “The investigation is still in progress.”

Chinta Strausberg is a Journalist of more than 33-years, a former political reporter and a current PCC Network talk show host.

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