By Fran Spielman
The Chicago Sun-Times
CHICAGO — More than 80 firefighters assigned to the Chicago Fire Department's scandal-scarred Fire Prevention Bureau are under internal investigation for allegedly falsifying mileage used to reimburse them for use of their personal vehicles to conduct inspections.
The alarming allegations affecting nearly 80 percent of the bureau's 108 employees follow an exhaustive audit by Inspector General Joe Ferguson that identified alleged abuses that might have cost Chicago taxpayers "hundreds of thousands of dollars" in 2009 alone.
Sources said more than a dozen firefighters have been interviewed and most have acknowledged falsifying mileage. They were confronted with evidence from GPS-equipped cell phones that have tracked their movements since a 2007 scandal.
In 2009, the firefighters were reimbursed at the IRS rate of 55 cents a mile with an unspecified monthly cap. The worst offenders allegedly worked backward from the cap and falsified their mileage to justify claiming the maximum, sources said.
Firefighters assigned to the Fire Prevention Bureau do not have Fire Department vehicles.
They go into the office each day, get a list of locations to inspect and use their personal vehicles to criss-cross the city. They keep track of their mileage and get reimbursed based on how far they've traveled. They are not reimbursed for their daily commute.
Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford refused to comment on the preliminary findings.
He would only say, ''We're aware that the inspector general's office is conducting an audit of the use of personal vehicles in the Fire Prevention Bureau, but we are not aware of any specific allegations.''
Langford added, ''If the audit shows there's wrongdoing, it will be addressed. Any report generated by the inspector general will be looked at carefully to see if any procedures or conduct need to be addressed."
Tom Ryan, president of the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2, could not be reached for comment on the allegations. Jonathan Davey, a spokesman for the inspector general's office, refused to comment on the investigation.
The Fire Prevention Bureau has been a steady source of controversy over the years.
In October 2007, Fire Commissioner Ray Orozco launched an internal investigation of the bureau, put all 100 inspectors on a shorter leash and ordered them to carry GPS-equipped cell phones to track their movements.
Orozco ordered the investigation after a TV station allegedly caught an inspector conducting personal business on city time.
The new phones were equipped with software that allows ''real-time tracking'' of an inspector's movements. The phones ''record the start and end time of inspections and act as a portable clock to track'' inspection activity.
Nearly one year later, eight inspectors from the Fire Prevention Bureau were fired and two others retired after being accused of accepting or facilitating cash payments in exchange for making weekend pump inspections at high-rises.
The decision to sweep out half of the 20-member pump section was made after an internal investigation determined that the practice of accepting ''several hundred dollars'' for every weekend inspection was improper, but has been going on for years.
A few months later, the bureau was placed in the hands of Nick Russell, former president of the African-American Firefighters Union.
Before the promotion to the post he still holds, Russell had spent years protesting hiring and promotion practices in the Fire Department and received an anonymous death threat during the 2004 uproar over racist transmissions over fire radio.
Earlier this year, Ferguson concluded that Chicago taxpayers were ''hemorrhaging'' money, thanks to a surge in overtime pay to Fire Department brass that coincided with — and wiped out savings generated by — mandatory furloughs.
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