One of the 17 Clearwater firefighters who have landed on a suspected sick time abuse list insists he’s done nothing wrong.
”Nobody’s asked me anything,” said retired firefighter Don Thomson. “The first time I saw it was online after I saw the report and I pulled up the spread sheet you had.”
The City of Clearwater launched a payroll audit after 8 On Your Side started asking questions about former firefighter Paul Capo who moved to Colorado for another job, but kept receiving sick pay month after month, despite his departure for a new job in a new state.
The city says Capo was overpaid $32,000 in pay and benefits and calculates the cost to taxpayers for all 17 firefighters on its sick time audit list at $219,000, including the cost of overtime to replace firefighters out on sick leave.
Thomson says back when he was a firefighter, a motorcycle crash sent him to the hospital, then light duty and then more leave at the department’s suggestion before he retired.
But Thomson’s sudden use of sick time shortly before his retirement prompted auditors to flag him for possible abuse.
“I was surprised to see my name on there,” said Thomson.
Capo told 8 On Your Side on Monday that his department head, the fire chief and the deputy fire chief all approved his sick leave from September through December, with the condition that he return to Florida for a work day in January to officially resign.
Regardless of who approved it, City Manager Bill Horne insists it was clearly wrong and a violation of city policy.
Clearwater criminal attorney Roger Futerman says it could add up to even more than that.
“Could be fraud,” Futerman said. “If you’re representing you’re sick and you’re getting sick pay and you’re not sick, you’re a healthy able body working somewhere else and essentially double-dipping, it could be, it’s misrepresenting to your employer.”
Horne says Capo’s case and the others are all under investigation while the city determines whether it is possible to reclaim any of the paid benefits on behalf of city taxpayers.
Horne refused to say who, if anybody, directly approved Capo’s sick leave after he moved to Colorado.
Thomson says someone in administration had to approve all payroll benefits for firefighters, even if it was after the fact.
“It does go up through the ranks,” Thomson said.
Horne says it’s too soon to tell whether discipline is merited for anyone and who should be held accountable.
Meanwhile, after we started asking questions, Clearwater changed its policy so that firefighters can no longer simply log into a computer and click a mouse to call in sick. They now have to pick up a phone and tell a supervisor when they’re taking sick leave, the same way it used to be before technology streamlined that process.