Auditors release report concerning accusations of fraud within Salina Fire Dept.

Former Captain says city was made aware of allegations nearly two years ago
Published: Aug. 4, 2021 at 10:00 PM CDT|Updated: Aug. 12, 2021 at 9:09 PM CDT
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SALINA, Kan. (KWCH) - Update Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021: Following a FactFinder 12 investigation concerning accusations of time card fraud with the Salina Fire Department, a report from independent auditors details the same issues our investigation uncovered. Those issues include vacation time being taken by battalion chiefs, but not recorded, costing the city into the hundreds of thousands. The report shows that not only was that time not recorded, it found that it had a “cascading effect upon lower-ranking staff.”

In the findings, the auditors say 265 shifts were identified as time off not applied to vacation, which is valued at more than $198,000. In addition to that, FactFinder 12 identified 24 shifts where there appears to be additional personal time or sick time not reported, valued at $18,000.

Tim LePage, the former captain with the fire department who originally reported the time fraud allegations, said the audit’s findings come as a relief.

“The immediate reaction was almost tears of joy, you know? That felt like I was vindicated. I’ve been vilified by a handful of people there, and I think this just solidified that, you know, I did my due diligence. I was correct and now the powers that be know.”>

Next Monday, Aug. 16, members of the Salina City Council will hear the results of the independent audit into the city’s fire department. Eyewitness News plans to be at that meeting. You can read the full audit report below. FactFinder 12 investigator Alex Flippin also will continue his coverage on Eyewitness News.

Update: The City of Salina has issued a statement following a Factfinder 12 investigation into the claims of time card fraud at the fire department. Our investigation uncovered allegations that battalion chiefs in the department were taking vacation time and then reporting to the city that they were actually working. A former captain with the department said the issue could be costing Salina taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The city had this to say following our report:

“The City of Salina is aware of allegations relating to the Salina Fire Department conveyed in a recent news story that aired on KWCH. Such allegations are being taken very seriously by the City of Salina.

City legal counsel previously engaged BKD CPAs & Advisors to perform forensic accounting services and prepare a forensic accounting report (“Report”). The Report is scheduled to be released and presented to the Salina City Commission by BKD on Monday, August 16, 2021.

To preserve the integrity of potential administrative action(s) regarding specific employees, no allegations or findings regarding specific employees will be discussed during the presentation, nor will such detail be disclosed by the Report.”

In an interview, the Salina city manager said he would not confirm that an outside auditor had been hired to look into the time fraud allegations. However, since our story aired, the city publicly states it has done just that.

The city says the auditor’s report will be presented to the city commission on Aug. 16. Factfinder 12 will be present at that meeting.

Accusations of time theft spark an investigation into leadership within the Salina Fire Department, and our own Factfinder 12 investigation reveals it could have cost taxpayers into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. It also found that the city was made aware of the accusations nearly two years ago, and the men accused of the crimes have not so much as been placed on leave.

“The Fire Service is a noble calling, one which is founded on mutual respect and trust between firefighters and the citizens they serve.” Those words are from the firefighter code of ethics, a code one former Salina firefighter says is being ignored.

“It’s a black eye. This is going to be a major black eye for our organization,” Tim LePage said.

LePage served with the Salina Fire Department for 22 years. He retired this past July as a captain. He tells Factfinder 12 he stumbled onto a hornets’ nest late summer of 2019.

“The HR (Human Resources) specialist there in Salina had contacted me,” LePage said. “We started conversing over the next few weeks about, you know, how overtime is handed out, what causes the overtime, you know, when that’s sick leave, and that’s vacation.”

Offhandedly, the HR specialist mentioned to LePage that his boss hadn’t taken any vacation. Something that could result in days worth of overtime because firefighter shifts run 24 hours at a time, said LePage. And, the city was trying to cut down it.

“That just caught my attention right away, because I manage the overtime draw for my shift, including my boss, and I knew that he had taken some,” LePage said. “So, we did two, three weeks of due diligence, (and) we found by and large that some of these chief officers were just not reporting their dates correctly.”

LePage said the system firefighters use to record time off and submit hours to the city to be paid don’t talk to each other. Within the fire department, battalion chiefs can take vacation days, days when they’re legitimately not there. In other cases, another firefighter, often a captain, must fill in for them. That can lead to overtime pay for that captain and possibly other fire department staff that have to back-fill positions. But because that system, doesn’t “talk” to the system the city uses to record hours and pay employees. The battalion chief that was on vacation can then claim to the city that they were working, and get paid for days they didn’t work at all. Additionally, they can even then sell back a portion of their unused vacation days to the city for an even bigger payout.

“Yes, exactly how it was working,” LePage said.

When asked how that was possible, LePage replied, “Their intimate knowledge of a system allowed them to manipulate it for personal gain.”

And if it’s happening in Salina, it’s not a problem unique to that department. Examples of firefighters caught stealing time in various ways and facing criminal charges can be found across the country.

Emails obtained by Factfinder 12 show the City of Salina was made aware of this issue in October 2019 and met on it just a month later. Salina City Manager Mike Schrage agreed to sit down with Factfinder 12 for an on-camera interview. What follows is a transcript of portions of the interview used in our Eyewitness News broadcast.

Factfinder 12 Investigator Alex Flippin: “Are you aware of time fraud allegations here at the Salina Fire Department?”

Mike Schrage: “Yup, we’re aware of the accusations and there’s an active investigation ongoing.”

AF: “When were you made aware of that?”

MS: “Over a year ago.”

Actually, one year and ten months ago and Tim LePage says in that time, the time card fraud, as he calls it, continued.

“The whole time the chiefs, some of these chiefs, were still stealing this vacation,” LePage explained. “Months into them knowing that and we’re talking at that point, we were in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, you know, loss to the taxpayers.”

Emails sent by the city manager in June 2020 reference the city receiving outside assistance on the matter, but Schrage wouldn’t elaborate for Factfinder 12 exactly what that was. LePage says he was told that assistance is coming from a forensic accounting firm in Kansas City, more than seven months after the city was aware of the time card fraud allegations. As of August 4, 2021, no person accused of the time fraud has been reprimanded.

Mike Schrage: “You’re approaching that as if a conclusion has been reached. In this particular instance, I would acknowledge it’s been quite amount of time.”

Alex Flippin: “We can say I’m ‘assuming’ wrongdoing will be found. I have pretty good evidence wrongdoing was done. It doesn’t take a forensic accounting firm to look and say, ‘one of these things is not like the other.’ If the allegation is time fraud then putting that person on leave makes absolute sense. It would put an end to their ability to continue with wrongdoing.”

MS: “Everything you just described is based on a conclusion that we’ve yet to reach.”

AF: “If you’re being investigated to see if you’re doing wrong. Wouldn’t it make sense to put that person on leave so if they were doing something wrong, they couldn’t do it and if they weren’t they’d still be paid?”

MS: “Well, there’s a lot that goes into that and there’s a lot that goes into personnel decisions in general and we have to take that on a case-by-case basis.”

Schrage says the city’s investigation is nearing its conclusion but, while an active investigation by the city continues, nearly two years after the allegations of time theft were reported, no one involved in the investigation has been placed on leave. Except one. Tim LePage.

“My phone rings at my desk and it’s my boss and he is irate. He says, ‘there’s going to be fallout from this. You’re in these timesheets. You’re not supposed to be,’“ LePage said.

He says he was caught looking at timesheets by his boss, a battalion chief. Something he’d been doing and sharing with city administrators for months. Shortly after, LePage says he was called into a meeting with several supervisors. He filed a grievance alleging a hostile work environment and was placed on leave until his retirement.

“My career has ended. My career has ended because of all of this,” LePage said. “I would like to see arrests. Time served. Whatever. That’s up to the court system, but I would like to see arrests, terminations and I would like to see a real strong leader come in and set accountability levels. Goals, measurements, transparency.”

Mike Schrage would not provide Factfinder 12 a timeline as to when the investigation will be complete nor confirm that an outside firm had been hired to look into the time fraud allegations. However, in an email obtained by Factfinder 12, sent by Schrage to members of the Salina Fire Department the day before the Factfinder investigation aired, he wrote, “an outside forensic accountant has been hired to conduct an investigation; and that they will be providing a report to the City Commission at their August 16th study session.”

The battalion chiefs accused of the time card fraud did not return repeated calls for comment.

In the majority of the cases of time theft mentioned earlier, within fire departments in other states, those accused were placed on leave soon after the accusations were reported or terminated within a number of months of the allegations being made.

The Saline County Prosecuting Attorney says his office has not been asked to investigate.

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