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Rescue Workers' Pay At Olympics Still Raising Questions

Excessive Overtime, Ski Time: 'Who's Paying?' Asks Commissioner

March 31, 2004

MIAMI -- The Local 10 Problem Solvers have new revelations for Miami-Dade County taxpayers about the deployment of members of the fire department's elite search and rescue team to the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics as disaster responders for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Fear of a possible terrorist attack at Olympics meant the U.S. government wasn't taking any chances. Among others, FEMA called on four of Miami-Dade's finest disaster responders to be on standby.

But Local 10 investigative reporter Jilda Unruh recently found out about the enormous amounts of overtime pay and rescue team members going snow skiing while they were collecting pay for being on standby in Utah. (Full story: Text and video)

Carlos Castillo, the long-time head of the county's famed Urban Search and Rescue Team and Division Chief Ruben Almaguer logged 24 hours for 10 straight days.

Castillo's paycheck for his 10-day Olympic duty was nearly $19,000. Almaguer got paid nearly $16,000.

Now, Unruh has discovered just who is footing the bill two years later.

The way it is supposed to work is the county pays the expenses and then gets reimbursed by FEMA.

But Unruh uncovered a problem: two years after the gold medals were handed out in Utah, Miami-Dade County still hasn't been reimbursed for FEMA's Olympic expenses.

County Commissioner Natache Seijas is furious and wants answers.

"We need to find out because two years is way too long," Seijas said. "These people have already been paid out of the coffers of the county."

But that's not so, according to Miami-Dade County Manager George Burgess.

One week after Local 10's first report aired, Burgess sent a six-page memo to Mayor Alex Penelas and the county commissioners challenging Local 10's facts.

Four times in the memo Burgess stated that "FEMA and not county taxpayers ..." paid for the Olympic deployment.

But, Local 10 discovered, Burgess was flat out wrong. His "... comprehensive report ..." failed to mention that FEMA has, to date, not paid the county's bill for the 2002 Winter Olympics deployment.

According to a county's spokesperson: "The reimbursement paperwork for expenses... Was submitted to FEMA in November of 2003."

That means the people in charge of administering the FEMA grant waited one year and nine months before even attempting to reclaim county tax dollars.

Seijas said she is "disturbed and upset and embarrassed" by the situation.

And, Unruh found out, it gets even worse. After FEMA received the county's claim it kicked it back. It seems those in charge "...accidentally omitted..." certain "...reimbursement expenses..." on the paperwork.

Seijas said, "I think we're in trouble."

What puzzles Seijas is the county manager's rigid defense of Castillo. He was the head of the search and rescue team since the mid-'80s and should have seen to it that reimbursement was sought in a timely fashion.

He got paid for going to the Olympics, and that's not all.

Unruh: "Chief, you got paid while you were skiing? Bottomline."

Castillo: "Yes."

Unruh: "Anybody else?"

Castillo: "Although that day I can assume that Ruben Almaguer was also -- We were together at the same -- same time. I don't know anybody else who would have."

Burgess insists Castillo skied on his own time before traveling back to Miami, and that no taxpayer funded Castillo's and Almaguer's downhill fun.

Seijas isn't buying it.

"I imagine the manager meant well when he gave me an explanation," Seijas said. "It is not acceptable to me."

According to Burgess' memo, Local 10's stories have, in fact, highlighted the need for detailed documentation with proper checks and balances.

FEMA finally has the county's bill, and says it will, as always, be carefully scrutinized.

Previous Stories:
March 16, 2004: Commissioners Question Paid Ski Days