Vincent R. Gugliuzza, one of Mayor Byron W. Brown’s most generous campaign donors and a 30-year department veteran, said being unexpectedly stripped of his post as deputy fire commissioner was callous and shocking.
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 was greeted by Whitfield and Corporation Counsel Timothy A. Ball, he said.
He was told to resign, or he would be fired. Gugliuzza said he didn’t do anything wrong and that he would rather resign than be fired.
“I don’t know if I’m a scapegoat for something,” he said. “I don’t deserve this type of treatment.”
Gugliuzza said he knows that as an appointed member of the administration, he serves at the pleasure of the mayor, and that sudden firings are possible.
“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 exit, which was official Tuesday morning.
“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 overtime costs in the department during meetings of the city’s accountability panel, even reminding him that the administration fired the last commissioner, Michael Lombardo, citing the same issue.
But a Buffalo News analysis of payroll records showed that the number of overtime hours decreased from 2012 to 2013 by 4.4 percent. The overtime cost increased by $1.5 million from 2012 to 2013, but that is attributed to an increase in firefighter pay, provided for in a contract settled in 2013. Overtime as a percentage of payroll was nearly flat, 15.9 percent of total payroll in 2012, and 15.7 percent in 2013.
“They’re going to try to blame me for high sick time and high overtime. That’s not even close,” Gugliuzza, told The Buffalo News. “A deputy doesn’t have that kind of power. Not even close.”
The union that represents firefighters believes that Gugliuzza’s ouster is meant to take attention away from investigations by the city and the Erie County District Attorney into the activities of the city’s other deputy fire commissioner, Joseph Tomizzi.
The Buffalo News published a story about the district attorney’s investigation into Tomizzi’s activities on Sunday, the day before Gugliuzza was fired.
“I think it’s a diversionary tactic,” said Thomas P. Barrett, vice president of the Buffalo Professional Firefighters Association Local 282. “It takes the attention away from Deputy Tomizzi.”
Union officials say they suspect Tomizzi has made unauthorized – and perhaps illegal – background checks on firefighters, and perhaps others as well.
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 Captain Kevin Peterson of the hazardous materials unit was taking over Gugliuzza’s position, but Fire Department sources said Peterson was taking the job.
Gugliuzza, who was a firefighter before he was appointed deputy commissioner and will now return to that job, said it’s possible the city wanted a higher-ranking person in the deputy commissioner postion, and 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 leads to overtime.
“Of course overtime is going to be through the roof,” said Barrett. “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 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 was also vice president of the firefighter union.
Gugliuzza quickly became one of Brown’s biggest campaign donors. He contributed $5,700 to Brown’s last mayoral campaign, making Gugliuzza the biggest contributor among city employees.
“I was hired by the mayor,” Gugliuzza said. He was disappointed that the mayor didn’t call him in to terminate his employment.
As a deputy commissioner, Gugliuzza oversaw personnel and other administrative functions in the Fire Department.
Controlling overtime was part of his responsibilities, DeGeorge said.
Gugliuzza joined the department in 1985. As deputy commissioner, he made $129,273 last year, according to payroll reports.
The other deputy commissioner, Joseph Tomizzi, oversees field operations, but also is involved with investigating sick time and injured-on-duty reports. He also oversees fire investigation.
Tomizzi is currently the focus of investigations by City Hall and the Erie County District Attorney’s Office, which 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.
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