McPhee: They Brought It on Themselves

When Local 718 leadership dug its heels in during contract negotiations for its firefighters, and union head Ed Kelly started taunting the mayor in the press, they essentially “kicked the bag,” police parlance for inviting a shitstorm, with their steadfast refusal to allow random drug testing into the new deal.

It’s not just the toxicology results that came after the deaths of two West Roxbury firefighters Paul Cahill and Warren Payne. Things got worse when Anthony “Machine Gun” Gaston – a veteran city firefighter – was busted in his uniform, in a Boston Fire Department vehicle he was not authorized to use, with two men, one a suspected drug dealer, parked at a fire hydrant with the car fish-bowled with pot smoke.

Gaston told me he saw the “po-po” in the unmarked car just before he was hauled out of the BFD vehicle and put in bracelets, blaming his arrest on the fact that he is a: “black man in Boston.” (There are, in fact, plenty of black men on civil service jobs in this city that do not have rap sheets like Gaston’s).

Gaston’s arrest should have marked the end of Local 718’s fight on the drug testing issue, and put an end to the war between the union and City Hall, but it didn’t. So, the news of a federal grand jury probe is hardly a surprise.

Now, I’m not suggesting that City Hall is behind the US Attorney’s investigation into retirement fraud, or the slew of subpoenas issued to firefighters and Mayor Thomas M. Menino officials yesterday. But, we all know how Massachusetts politics works.

When Deval Patrick and Sal DiMasi got into it, suddenly Sal’s golfing outings were turning up the front page of the Globe, a scoop that was followed by a story detailing Patrick’s 65-page book proposal for A Reason to Believe. The lesson is this: take on the mayor, and subpoenas probing bogus retirements just might start arriving in fire houses across the city.

A grand jury will be waiting to hear evidence about potential ripoffs at the Boston taxpayer’s expense. And yeah, we all love firefighters, but consider the numbers. According to the Globe, in an average week last year 200 firefighters in the 1,500-member department were on injured leave and receiving 100 percent of their salaries – tax free. Between 2003 and 2006, the city of Boston paid out $43.5 million in injured leave.

Those numbers make former schools superintendent Michael Contompasis’ $148,000 payday for unused sick time seem like an easy taxpayer-funded hit in comparison. When asked about Contompasis’ pension, that is worth nearly a half-million, City Councilor Stephen Murphy told the Herald there should be a hearing to make sure it never happens again. But when firefighters retire on lifetime disability after moving a filing cabinet working a desk job, there’s no such clamor from city councilors demanding answers.

Why? Because no one wants to be viewed denigrating city firefighters.

Now, it’s officially open season. Jakes could be going to jail. And it’s hard to say this is a bad thing. The bottom line is, rooting out corruption and dirty dealings is the ultimate way to honor the dedicated, hardworking firefighters who are getting frustrated at the bad rap Local 718 is getting on the front pages—a rap it brought on itself.