Deputy fire commissioner calls ouster callous and shocking, denies blame in department overtime - The Buffalo News
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Deputy fire commissioner calls ouster callous and shocking, denies blame in department overtime

Vincent R. Gugliuzza, one of Mayor Byron W. Brown’s most generous campaign donors and a 30-year veteran of the Fire Department, called his unexpected ouster as deputy fire commissioner callous and shocking.

“I don’t know if I’m a scapegoat for something,” he said Tuesday. “I don’t deserve this type of treatment.”

Gugliuzza, 61, a former union official who joined the department brass in 2010, was called into Fire Commissioner Garnell W. Whitfield Jr.’s office late Monday afternoon, he said, and was greeted by Whitfield and Corporation Counsel Timothy A. Ball.

Resign or be fired, he was told.

Gugliuzza told them that he hadn’t done anything wrong and that he would rather resign from his $129,273 job than be fired.

He said he knows that as a political appointee, he served at the pleasure of the mayor.

“Mayor Brown’s a great guy,” Gugliuzza said. “I don’t know if everybody around him is.”

A spokesman for the city confirmed Gugliuzza’s departure, which became official Tuesday.

“The administration asked for the deputy commissioner’s resignation based on some issues, most notably overtime in the Fire Department,” said city spokesman Michael J. DeGeorge.

First Deputy Mayor Steven M. Casey has been critical of Whitfield regarding the department’s overtime costs during meetings of the city’s accountability panel, even reminding him that the administration fired the last commissioner, Michael S. Lombardo, over the same issue.

But a Buffalo News analysis of payroll records showed that the number of overtime hours decreased by 4.4 percent in 2013, compared with 2012. The overtime costs, however, increased by $1.5 million, reflecting an increase in firefighter pay included in a 2013 contract settlement. Overtime as a percentage of payroll was flat, 15.7 percent in 2013, compared with 15.9 percent in 2012. The city paid $9.7 million in Fire Department overtime in 2013, The News found.

“They’re going to try to blame me for high sick time and high overtime. That’s not even close,” Gugliuzza told The News. “A deputy doesn’t have that kind of power. Not even close.”

The union representing firefighters believes that Gugliuzza’s ouster is meant to take attention away from investigations by the city and the Erie County District Attorney’s Office into the activities of the city’s other deputy fire commissioner, Joseph J. Tomizzi.

The News published an article about the district attorney’s investigation into Tomizzi’s activities Sunday, the day before Gugliuzza was fired.

“I think it’s a diversionary tactic,” said Thomas P. Barrett, vice president of Local 282, Buffalo Professional Firefighters Association. “It takes the attention away from Deputy Tomizzi.”

Investigators are trying to determine the propriety of some of the criminal background checks Tomizzi has made over the years. Tomizzi’s attorney has said all the checks were legitimate, noting that Tomizzi has long been involved in the department’s fire investigation unit.

Union officials say they suspect that Tomizzi has made unauthorized – and possibly illegal – background checks on firefighters and perhaps other people, as well.

Asked about the union’s suspicion, DeGeorge said the demand for Gugliuzza’s resignation has to do with overtime.

Gugliuzza said he didn’t know if his ouster was meant to take the spotlight off of Tomizzi.

“It has those appearances,” he said.

City Hall would not confirm that Capt. Kevin D. Peterson of the hazardous materials unit was taking over Gugliuzza’s position, but several Fire Department sources, including Gugliuzza, said Peterson, 47, was moving into the job.

Gugliuzza, who was a firefighter before his appointment as deputy commissioner, will return to that job.

He said it’s possible the city wanted a higher-ranking person as deputy commissioner. Peterson would fit that description.

The union that represents firefighters said the number of vacancies – 74 in the firefighting ranks alone – and rules about minimum staffing levels cause the overtime.

“Of course, overtime is going to be through the roof,” Barrett said. “It’s not the commissioner’s fault. It’s not the deputy commissioner’s fault. They can’t control overtime if they don’t have bodies to fill the spots.”

Even when firefighters are not out sick or on vacation, overtime must be used to cover the shifts, Gugliuzza said.

Brown appointed Gugliuzza as deputy commissioner in 2010 when the mayor promoted Whitfield, a former deputy commissioner, to the commissioner’s slot.

When appointed, Gugliuzza was a firefighter who also served as vice president of the firefighters union.

Gugliuzza quickly became one of Brown’s biggest campaign donors, and he said he was proud to work on his campaign, including passing petitions and being a poll-watcher during Brown’s re-election bid last year. Gugliuzza contributed $5,700 to Brown’s last mayoral campaign, making him the biggest contributor among city employees.

“I was hired by the mayor,” Gugliuzza said.

Gugliuzza said he was disappointed that the mayor didn’t call him in to terminate his employment. He said he would have understood.

“It was hard and callous,” Gugliuzza said Tuesday. “What happened yesterday was shocking.”

Gugliuzza said he and Whitfield are good friends.

“In his expression, I knew this is not what he wanted to do,” Gugliuzza said, adding that he knows that this is part of Whitfield’s job.

“It’s a sad commentary on how this whole operation is going,” Gugliuzza said.

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