Mayor Shayne Gallo is standing by his decision to continue his three-and-a-half-year effort to oust a former fire chief from the city payroll, calling an alderman’s recent call to return him to duty “misplaced” and a violation of the alderman’s responsibility to safeguard public funds.
In his City Hall press conference Monday, June 29 the mayor also went further in his attacks against Chris Rea, saying Rea could — and should — have been prosecuted for actions he, the mayor claimed, carried out for ex-fire chief Rick Salzmann.
Rea has not been to work or been paid since February 2012 when Gallo placed him on leave amid allegations that he took money he was not entitled to and received pay for days when he was not present.
Since then, Rea and the city have engaged in a protracted legal battle. Rea has sought reinstatement to his former post of assistant fire chief and back pay dating to March 2012 when his 30-day unpaid suspension — the maximum allowed under state civil service law — ended. In October 2014, Gallo opted to officially terminate Rea, overruling the findings of an independent hearing officer who determined that the charges against Rea could not be proven and recommended that he be returned to duty and “his good name restored.”
Last week, Common Council Majority Leader Matt Dunn (D-Ward 1) sent an official communication calling for Rea’s reinstatement with full back pay in exchange for Rea’s agreeing to drop further legal action against the city. Dunn wrote that in light of the hearing officer’s findings and several court decisions in Rea’s favor, it was clear that the city was engaged in a misguided and futile legal battle. The council’s Finance Committee is expected to discuss the communication later this month.
“The bottom line is, we still owe the money and it’s going to accrue interest,” said Dunn, an attorney. “Let’s cut our losses and put this all behind us.”
Gallo responded to Dunn’s missive with a City Hall press conference Monday, June 29, where he laid out the case against Rea and defended his decision both to terminate the former firefighter and withhold payment for years beyond the civil service limit for unpaid suspensions.
Then the mayor went further, alleging that Rea acted as an accomplice to criminal acts by his predecessor Rick Salzmann, who resigned and later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge stemming from fraudulent time sheets, and questioning why District Attorney Holley Carnright never initiated a prosecution. Gallo also took direct aim at Dunn, saying that the majority leader’s remarks had hampered the city’s legal efforts.
“In his political hatred of my office, he’s lost sight of his fiduciary responsibility to the city and to taxpayers,” said Gallo.
Gallo said he called the press conference to set the record straight and address “false statements” made by Dunn. Reading from prepared remarks, Gallo said Rea was a chief beneficiary of a culture of cronyism that prevailed at the fire department before he took office. Gallo noted that it was the State Comptroller’s Office that first turned up evidence that Rea had been paid by the city for days when he was employed as an instructor at the State Fire Academy in Montour Falls, hours away from the city. Gallo added that Rea had been the beneficiary of an informal arrangement with Salzmann that allowed him to take credit for work-related duties — like taking a work phone call at home — and use it as “flex time” to be taken off at his own discretion. The entire arrangement, Gallo said, was done in violation of Rea’s contract and with no documentation.
Gallo also defended his decision to ignore hearing officer John Trela’s recommendation that Rea be reinstated. At the hearing, Gallo said, Rea consistently gave vague answers or claimed he could not remember when confronted with evidence against him.
Gallo also pointed to several instances where state Supreme Court judges sided with the city. Most recently, Gallo noted, Judge Richard Mott agreed with the city that Rea’s actions, if proven, amounted to crimes and thus were not subject to the 18-month statute of limitations on workplace misconduct allegations. (Mott did not rule on whether the city had actually proven any of the allegations, leaving that pending determination to the court’s Appellate Division.)
“We remain confident that the Appellate Division will once again rule in our favor and determine that the termination was supported by substantial evidence,” said Gallo.
In response to questions, Gallo departed from prepared remarks and claimed that Rea could have been prosecuted for actions carried out for Salzmann. In 2012, Salzmann pleaded guilty to misdemeanor offering a false instrument for filing. The charges stemmed from his admission that he had submitted falsified time sheets to obtain pay for hours he didn’t work. Gallo claimed that Rea had admitted that he and his former boss routinely examined and approved one another’s time sheets.
“In that sense, you could argue that he was an accomplice to what Salzmann was doing,” said Gallo, who questioned why Carnright never sought charges against Rea.
Carnright, contacted Wednesday, declined to comment on Gallo’s remarks.