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Firefighters' Union Owes Clout to Its Free-Spending Chief

Firefighters' Union Owes Clout to Its Free-Spending Chief

 

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By NOAM SCHEIBER  NEW YORK TIMES

 The International Association of Fire Fighters is a small union of just under 300,000 members with political influence far beyond its size. The obvious reason for this is the respect many Americans have for firefighters, who consistently rank as some of the country's mostadmired professionals. The less obvious reason is Harold A. Schaitberger, a tall, barrel-chested man with meaty hands and rheumy eyes, who has served as the union's general president for over 15 years.

PhotoUnder Mr. Schaitberger's stewardship, the biennial fund-raising haul of the union's political action committee, Firepac, has grown to nearly $18 million from just under $3 million, allowing him to play the role of power broker. The union usually endorses Democrats for president, but this year Mr. Schaitberger met with Jeb Bush to discuss his presidential ambitions. He has a close, longstanding relationship with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and has been courted aggressively by the campaign of Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom the union made initial plans to endorse before reversing course as a Biden candidacy loomed.

Harold Schaitberger, general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, at Arlington National Cemetery moments before posing with a group of counselors and participants from a camp for burn survivors. CreditGabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

The stature of Mr. Schaitberger, who favors chunky cuff links and suits from Nordstrom, and takes home roughly $330,000 a year from the union, has not come cheap. He has a fondness for first-class airfare and chauffeured travel. According to Labor Department filings, the union spends roughly $30,000 a year with a single hired-car service, and officials said Mr. Schaitberger took most of the rides.

Then there are the meals. Mr. Schaitberger is a regular at Washington lobbyist haunts like the Capital Grille, where, in 2010, he routinely spent about $200 a person, according to union expense reports obtained by The New York Times from two former officials frustrated with his tenure. He and two dinner guests spent more than $1,100 of firefighters' union money in Las Vegas that September, including $245 for a bottle of Caymus Special Selection Cabernet and $160 for a rack of lamb. (The union says other guests joined for drinks.) In all, he spent over $110,000 on roughly 100 meals in 2010. They included just over 650 attendees.

Mr. Schaitberger, whose business philosophy might best be summarized as "spend money to make money," doesn't shrink from these expenses. During a recent interview in his corner office a few blocks from the White House, he acknowledged that they continued to this day and stressed that they were permitted under his union's rules. He said he often hired a car going from an airport to the site of a state firefighters' union convention, which can be quite a distance away. As for his occasional in-town travel, he said, "a function at the vice president's mansion -- I'll have a car service, because you can't park and walk."

Mr. Schaitberger points out that the expensed meals typically include top government officials, candidates for public office and business executives, some of whom do business with the I.A.F.F., and that they are simply the cost of advancing the union's agenda. "This isn't about that I need another meal," he said. " This is part of how we built our image, our brand, our influence."

And like others who have amassed such power, he is convinced he has the consent of his constituency -- in this case, his rank and file, whose roughly $150 annual union dues pay the bills. "I think our members actually want us to -- not play -- they want us to operate at a level with those in positions of authority or power," Mr. Schaitberger said. "They don't want me to be in a firefighter T-shirt."

But the spending seems to be not just about making the union more influential in Washington; it's also about increasing Mr. Schaitberger's influence over the union.

At a time when management gurus and the paragons of corporate leadership talk up the benefits of flattening hierarchies and pulling back curtains, Mr. Schaitberger seems like a throwback. He is a one-man case study in how to consolidate power in the executive suite through deft use of his organization's funds, which he has managed to dispense to allies and rivals alike with little oversight or checks.

Eric Lamar, a former firefighter and top aide to Mr. Schaitberger who now writes a blog critical of him, summed up Mr. Schaitberger's management approach this way: "He will bully when he can, and buy support when he can't."

5.pngFirefighters' Union Owes Clout to Its Free-Spending Chief
Harold A. Schaitberger, general president of the IAFF, addresses a 2015 conference in Washington. 
International Association of Firefighters

An Ambitious Climb

Mr. Schaitberger began his career in the mid-1960s as a firefighter in Fairfax County, Va., and was president of his local at 25. In 1988, he became the I.A.F.F.'s chief of staff under Alfred Whitehead, who had just been elected the union's president.

Mr. Whitehead had helped put the I.A.F.F. on sound financial footing as the union's secretary-treasurer before he became president. With Mr. Schaitberger at his side, he increased the union's influence over firefighters' pension funds, which are often combined with those of other public employees, and built up various health and safety programs. It was thanks to a wellness and fitness initiative Mr. Schaitberger championed in the late 1990s that the I.A.F.F. was able to determine that the lung function of many 9/11 firefighters had plummeted in the years after the terrorist attacks.

After succeeding his mentor as president in 2000, Mr. Schaitberger further increased the union's reach and profile. He invested heavily in data -- like state-of-the-art mapping software -- that helped stop local efforts to pare back stations and trucks by showing how such cuts would dangerously increase response times. He created a for-profit I.A.F.F.-owned company, the IAFF Financial Corporation, that licenses the union's trademark for the sale of deferred compensation plans to municipal workers and returns more than $1 million a year to the union.

Mr. Schaitberger's professional ambitions have been matched by a taste for refinement and a regal impatience. A former colleague recalled that when Mr. Schaitberger dined at Il Mulino, one of his regular Washington haunts until it closed in 2010, he would ask the waiters to "fix me up a little of this" instead of ordering from the menu. Thomas Hanify, the president of the Indiana state firefighters' union, said he once called on Mr. Schaitberger at his office in Washington, only to have Mr. Schaitberger abruptly announce, "Time for you to go," after they had addressed the matter at hand. "He doesn't do small talk," Mr. Hanify said. "And I'm friendly with the guy."

Of course, self-importance is not a quality that tends to doom people in Washington, and it does not appear to have hurt Mr. Schaitberger. He developed the political strategy that made the union effective during Republican rule in the 2000s -- an emphasis on firefighters as protectors of neighborhoods and, by extension, the homeland. Under his leadership, the firefighters won passage in 2003 of the original Safer Act, which authorized about $7.5 billion worth of grants to hire and retain firefighters to protect communities from terrorism and other hazards.

Mr. Schaitberger's influence increased during the Obama administration.

In 2009, he personally lobbied Vice President Biden and won an effective expansion of the Safer Act that helped avert a rash of firefighter layoffs during the recession. In 2010, Mr. Schaitberger and his legislative team helped pass a long-stalled bill paying for medical treatment and financial benefits to firefighters who responded to the 9/11 attacks and other ground zero workers.

Meals and Deals

Whatever its use in advancing the causes of firefighters, Mr. Schaitberger's lavish spending advances at least one more: his own.

For about half the year, Mr. Schaitberger travels across the United States and Canada, and the bills for his meals often exceed $2,000. "We can go into, typically, a room, break bread, have a drink, share glasses of wine," Mr. Schaitberger told me, explaining that the seven to 15 guests he usually invites are state-level union officials with whom he meets on the eve of their annual conventions. "We have a talk about the politics and the issues and the challenges." (Mr. Schaitberger said that in addition to the expensive meals, he frequently stops by a local fire station for breakfast when he travels so that he can interact with the rank and file.)

Critics within the union see the objective in somewhat crasser terms. "You get a firefighter, a local union officer, out there making $35,000 a year, and they get to have an audience with the president, eat in a restaurant they could never afford themselves, that's a big thing," said a former I.A.F.F. official who asked not to be named because he feared retaliation against his union allies. "A lot of guys get rolled by that. They like the glitz."

The dinners have also helped Mr. Schaitberger undermine opponents and insurgent candidates for senior positions within the union, some say. "I'd show up to do a campaign deal and go, 'Where are all the people?' " said a recent candidate for a senior elected position, who asked not to be identified because he did not want to jeopardize his chances of running again. "It turned out all the board members were having dinner with Harold and Tom Miller," the union's secretary-treasurer. "They'd pull all the important people away from other candidates, have a dinner that the I.A.F.F. is paying for."

Then there is Mr. Schaitberger's way of isolating uncooperative officials when defeating them isn't possible. Mike Mohler, the president of the Virginia firefighters' union, who was part of Mr. Schaitberger's campaign team in 2000 and 2004, says he believes he was blackballed for questioning the general president's leadership

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Mr. Schaitberger, right, speaking to the Teamsters president, James P. Hoffa, at a White House event this month. CreditStephen Crowley/The New York Times

 Mr. Mohler said, for example, that he had been denied a committee assignment at the union's quadrennial convention ever since the falling-out -- he is, he believes, one of the few state presidents for whom this is true. (Mr. Schaitberger doesn't deny the falling-out, but a spokesman said that he defers to his board members when making these assignments.)

"People that you thought were friends before don't have time for you anymore," Mr. Mohler said. "It's difficult to deal with."

A Very Nice Perk

One of the more controversial practices of Mr. Schaitberger's tenure is the payment of per diems. I.A.F.F. officials can claim up to $80 a day to cover meals and other unreimbursed expenses while performing "duties outside of their regular domicile."

Mr. Schaitberger is relatively scrupulous in his own use of the per diems, typically claiming the allowance only when he travels outside Washington. But he has granted his vice presidents wiggle room on per diem for years. (The I.A.F.F.'s vice presidents represent 16 geographic districts across the United States and Canada and populate the union's executive board.)

According to documents obtained by The Times from one current and one former I.A.F.F. official, vice presidents routinely request and receive the per diems three, four, even five days a week regardless of whether they are on the road, effectively increasing their salaries by thousands of dollars each year. "From Schaitberger's point of view, if that's all it takes to keep them happy, he could care less," said Mr. Lamar, the former aide turned critic. "That's no skin off his back."

In the 2014 fiscal year, four vice presidents received at least $18,000 in per diem payments and seven more received at least $11,000. An analysis of the paperwork they submitted shows that several of them received the full $80 on dozens of days -- in some cases well over 100 -- in which they reported that they remained in their city of residence.

Ken Margolies, a labor specialist at the Worker Institute at Cornell University who has worked for several unions, said some unions did have policies that allowed officials to collect per diems even when they weren't traveling, though his impression was that many had abandoned them because of concerns about the appearance of impropriety.

But the I.A.F.F.'s policy does not appear to allow this. In February 2015, the union's financial auditor, Renner & Company, flagged the issue in a presentation at the union's executive board meeting in Hollywood, Fla., according to a copy of the slides from the presentation provided to The Times by a former union official. The auditors noted that some vice presidents were "requesting $80 any day when I.A.F.F. business is done" and reminded the board that the per diem was not "intended to be $80 compensation for time spent."

Paul Hufnagel, a vice president from Michigan who until recently claimed the $80 on many days when he worked in town, said, "The way I understand it, if you leave your residence, that's when it kicks in." (After I'd raised the issue with the union several times, Mr. Hufnagel sent the I.A.F.F. a letter saying, "In an abundance of caution and to avoid any appearance of impropriety, I have decided to reimburse the I.A.F.F. for each out-of-pocket expense allowance claimed during the period of March 2010 through July 2015 where I worked outside of my domicile, as I understood the term, but within the greater Lansing area.")

Asked how he interpreted the policy, Mr. Schaitberger stated that he, too, believed it was intended to apply to anyone who left his house, even though he generally only claims the per diem when he leaves town, and even though John Lund, a Labor Department official who performed a review of expense policies for the union, used the term "domicile" in his 2009 report to allude to the geographic area in which one resides, not one's personal residence. " 'Regular domicile,' I believe, means their home," Mr. Schaitberger told me.

Mr. Mohler, the president of the Virginia state firefighters' union, said: "In our circles, 'part of the deal' is the phrase they use -- it's 'part of the deal' that guys do not speak up. You get to go to really nice places, have access to per diems, travel." But, he added, "You have to sell your soul to get it."

Power of the Purse

The combination of good will and fear that Mr. Schaitberger has created affords him enormous leeway in running the union. Committees stacked with allies enact his agenda while votes of the union's board -- on, say, major budget, personnel and policy matters -- rarely go against him.

In 2011, Mr. Schaitberger moved to create a roughly $1.5 million annual "Fighting Back" fund, from which the I.A.F.F. would send money to locals for as-needed campaigns -- like running advertisements to discourage cities from closing stations and engine companies. The board unanimously approved the idea but, surprisingly, did not insist on retaining any control over the spending. Mr. Schaitberger is allowed to dispense the cash entirely as he sees fit, although spending data is available to board members online. (The Fighting Back budget is $1.2 million this year.)

Mr. Schaitberger has also used his influence to do business with friends. Some of the insurance products that the IAFF Financial Corporation offers to the union's members are brokered through SF&C Insurance Associates, owned by Jim Franzoni, one of Mr. Schaitberger's closest friends for many years. The firm gets a cut of the business.

In 2010, Mr. Schaitberger and his fiancée jointly purchased a house owned by Mr. Franzoni on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. The law normally requires union officials to disclose such transactions in Labor Department filings. (One risk is that an interested party will underprice an asset to win favor with the officials.) Mr. Schaitberger only disclosed the sale in 2015 after the Labor Department, prompted by an anonymous complaint, deemed the transaction reportable. The union said the department did not determine that the sale price was inappropriate.

When presented with these issues, Mr. Schaitberger repeatedly said the union's lawyers vetted every step he took as president that might be legally controversial, particularly the purchase of Mr. Franzoni's house, and that he had always deferred to them on what the law required.

View From the Trenches

One Tuesday in September, I traveled to Virginia Beach for an educational conference organized by the state's firefighters' union. Given that the I.A.F.F. is a democratic organization, the question of how rank-and-file firefighters feel about Mr. Schaitberger's governing style is of more than passing relevance. I wanted to solicit some opinions.

Of the dozen members I interviewed, mostly firefighters who held positions in small locals around the state, all but one or two said that the general president's spending on meals and travel was probably justified. "If I spend $1,000 on a plate for your dinner, and you give me $20,000 at the end of the night, I didn't waste any money," said Daniel McCleese, a member of the Prince William County local.

But some of the other hallmarks of his leadership, most prominently the per diems, inspired either surprise, consternation or both.

One firefighter named J. J. Price, who serves on the executive board of his local in Roanoke, told me that if the per diems were in fact given so freely -- and he wanted to see the evidence -- there needed to be more "checks and balances." He explained that to receive a per diem in Roanoke, he was required to file itemized receipts and he was reimbursed only for what he spent, not a set amount. If the spending occurred within 30 miles of his home, he got nothing. He did not seem to think this was unreasonable.

Some even felt it raised near-existential questions. "To me it's obscene," Greg Wright, president of the Charlottesville local, said of the per diems.

"People allow us into their homes with no questions asked," he explained. "And that's based on that trust that we have with the public. If you betray that trust, it's counterproductive to our overall mission."

 

 

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