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Denver allocates $100K for investigation into fire department timekeeping practices

Denver allocates $100K for investigation into fire department's overtime
Denver allocates $100K for investigation into fire department's overtime 03:24

The City of Denver has authorized as much as $100,000 for an independent investigation into the Denver Fire Department command staff's use of flex time, which first came to light via a CBS News Colorado investigation in April.

According to a contract signed last month between the city and former U.S. Attorney Robert Troyer, the investigation could run as long as two years. CBS News Colorado obtained the contract via an official request to Denver's Department of Safety.

The Department of Public Safety gave CBS News Colorado Investigator Brian Maass this statement regarding the investigation, "We anticipate a quick and thorough investigation. While it is likely that the investigation will be completed within a few months, the contract timeline ensures that the investigation and any follow up identified as the investigation progresses can be completed without having to seek a contractual amendment. For the same reasons, the contract amount was set at $100,000 to avoid having to amend the contract if it exceeds anticipated timelines or costs. We do not expect the investigation to cost $100,000."

In April, we reported that Denver Fire Chief Desmond Fulton, who makes $230,000 annually, amassed more than 400 hours of comp or flex time in a recent three-year period by attending memorial services for firefighters, retirement parties for his employees and going to a candlelight vigil for victims of a 2022 mass shooting.

"Disgusting" is how one current Denver firefighter characterized the practice. Numerous other firefighters, who requested anonymity, expressed similar sentiments.

Funeral services for Fallen Denver Fire Department Firefighter John Whelan in Denver, Colorado.
Denver Firetruck 8 sits outside of Faith Bible Church in Arvada, Colorado on July 21, 2015. Helen H. Richardson / The Denver Post via Getty Images

Following our investigation, Denver Department of Public Safety Executive Director Armando Saldate ordered an immediate halt to the practice, saying he was unaware of it, and records show the city signed a $100,000 contract with Troyer in late April to conduct an investigation that's capped at two years. The agreement calls for Troyer to "conduct an independent investigation into the practice of the Denver Fire Department Command Staff's usage of 'Kelly Flex Time.'"

Denver's municipal code appears to explicitly forbid Fulton and the fire department's executive staff from accruing comp time. The city code reads, "Division chiefs, deputy chief and the chief of the fire department who work overtime after the end of a regular shift shall not be compensated."

One issue that will likely be probed is if Fulton or his command staff used comp or flex time to take time off and vacations, which then allowed them to cash out or "sell" unused vacation days back to the city at the end of each year. Selling unused vacation days is allowed under the collective bargaining agreement between the fire department and the city, but rank-and-file firefighters are heavily pressured not to engage in the practice, apparently to save the city money.

Records show that in 2023, the city paid Fulton $14,987.30 for vacation days he didn't use in 2022. The city paid Division Chief of Operations Robert Murphy $10,992.66 for vacation days he didn't use in 2022. For Fulton and his command staff, the city paid them a total of  $81,043.93 for unused vacation days in 2022. When Fulton accepted the job as fire chief in 2020, he noted, "we're facing a budget crisis like we've never seen."

While top department commanders were pocketing thousands of dollars for unused vacation days, internal emails from 2022 show they were simultaneously pressuring rank-and-file firefighters not to do the same.

In a December 2022 email to department commanders, Murphy wrote to his colleagues, "Please take a look at the following members and let me know the plan to get rid of these vacation hours before the end of the year. These hours need to be used before January."

That same month, Deputy Chief Kathleen Vredenburgh emailed department division chiefs and copied the email to Fulton.

Titled "2022 VACATION AUDIT," Vredenburgh alerted the commanders to "look at the attached people listed from your division that still have vacation and ASL (accumulated sick leave) balances and make sure they get the remainder of their time in the books. There's only three and a half weeks left in the year."

City records show Vredenburgh was paid $9,243.77 for her unused vacation days from 2022. 

A spokesperson for the Denver Fire Department said Fulton and his command staff would not discuss any current issues given the pending investigation.

Mayor Mike Johnston wrote to Chris Ferguson. the president of the Denver Firefighters Union, on May 1 officially informing the union of the comp time investigation.

"I know we are aligned on our expectation that Denver's public safety work is conducted with integrity and transparency, at every level, and especially in leadership," Johnston wrote in the one-page letter to Ferguson.

He asked in his letter "that local 858 support the investigation and await its completion before taking any formal action."

That line appears to be aimed at fending off a potential "no confidence" vote in Fulton, which has been discussed among Denver firefighters.

"I recognize the frustration and anger your members may feel," read the mayor's letter, which noted, "our desire to get an accurate account of what happened."

Although Fulton has repeatedly declined to be interviewed about the flex time issue, he previously released the following statement:

"I want my team in the fire department and our broader community to know that I've always followed what I believed were best practices to promote transparency and uphold the public's trust. Tracking Flex Time is a long-standing practice that fire chiefs have used for many years. During my transition into the Chief's appointment in 2020, I continued to follow the practice and track all activities and hours in our reporting system — a practice that has been in for at least the last decade by other department leads. I fully support an investigation of how these hours were used and have asked that department leaders cease this practice immediately."

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