Fire chief accused of violating record retention laws

Posted

Warwick resident Rob Cote is calling for the dismissal of Warwick Fire Chief James McLaughlin, claiming the chief violated state record retention laws by disposing of thousands of documents which log information pertaining to firefighters requesting changes in shift.

Cote presented his research to the Warwick City Council during their meeting on Nov. 20, and alleged that Chief McLaughlin knowingly disposed of 1,391 Form 109 documents between July 1, 2016 and May 30 of 2017.

According to the Rhode Island Office of the Secretary of State Records Retention Schedule LG2, Section 2.6.4, “Records that document requests for leave. Requests for leave include vacation, compensatory, special, conference/professional development, personal, holiday, or jury duty,” must be retained for four years.

Further, according to Title 38 of the Rhode Island General Laws regarding public records, “No public official may mutilate, destroy, sell, loan, or otherwise dispose of any public record without the consent of the public records administration program of the secretary of state.” A violation of this law would incur a $20 to $500 penalty per document disposed of. Furthermore, these records must be kept in a specific type of way and be readily accessible by the public upon request.

Cote claims that in the past four years the fire department has averaged about 1,400 shift changes a year, totaling about 5,600 Form 109s that are supposedly missing or have been purposefully disposed of. This could incur a maximum fine of $2.8 million, which the city would be on the hook for, according to Cote.

Cote filed an Access to Public Records Act request (APRA) in May and December of 2016 to get any documents pertaining to changes of shift within the Warwick Fire Department. Cote was told on multiple occasions that such records didn’t exist, although McLaughlin insists there was a misunderstanding pertaining to whether Cote was requesting a completed Form 109 document or a blank one.

“The fact of the matter is that the document does exist,” Cote said on Monday night, holding up a copy of a blank Form 109 document with “WARWICK FIRE DEPARTMENT” written across the top.

The Form 109 document requires four signatures – one from the firefighter requesting a change in shift or leave for a particular day, one from the firefighter covering for him/her, one from the platoon chief and one from the battalion chief. The document also requests a reason for the change in shift.

In response to the allegations, Chief McLaughlin said the department keeps track of firefighters who request a shift change on their workforce accountability sheets, which are logged electronically from information filled out on the Form 109 document.

However Cote said that not all of the information is transferred over to the accountability sheet, merely the name of the firefighter and whether or not a change of shift has occurred. The reason for those changes of shift is not reflected, which Cote asserts leaves a window open for deception. Additionally, Cote maintains that regardless of whether or not the information is transferred to a different system, the Form 109 documents must be retained anyways.

Cote played a recording from the most recent budget hearings for FY18 where McLaughlin said that: “When the chief enters them into the computer, and after their shift is worked, we discard of that. There's no reason to keep [the completed Form 109 documents]. They're in the computer. We keep a hard copy with the filled out names prior to the time of the change of shift. Once that change of shift happens, it's entered into the computer that that firefighter did in fact show up, there's no need to keep the signed paperwork.”

Cote said that this statement is a cut and dry admittance of violating record retention laws.

“I'm perplexed that the chief sat next to the mayor on one side and the city solicitor on the other side, he openly admitted to violating state law,” Cote said to the Council. “And is it possible that one of these municipal leaders don't know what the laws are when it comes to record retention? I'm a small businessman and I know them. I don't understand how that could be possible.”

Mclaughlin, in an interview on Tuesday, said that he was consulting with the city solicitors about the issue.

“Whether that specific form that he's denoting is applicable to the records retention schedule of Rhode Island, that's something that the city solicitors are reviewing right now,” he said. “We do have our manpower accountability sheets that we do retain – we're required by law to retain them for one year – and we do retain beyond one year. Those are the sheets where if somebody did work a change of shift, it’s right on there. So it's full disclosure.”

In response to allegations from Cote that fire department personnel had used the change of shift system to subvert using vacation or sick time in order to go work other jobs or even attend a softball tournament in Maine, McLaughlin said that he had seen no evidence of such activity, and if anybody has proof of such accusations to please bring it forward.

Comments

15 comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment
Warwickcitizen

Once again the coward Rob cote is at again, when will you just go away. The frivolous charges against the Fire Chief are embarrassing. Why don’t you come clean and admit The real reason you hate the fire department, What are you hiding?

Saturday, November 25
Warwick Man

So Rob, please please please seek professional help. I’m concerned for your well being. Two scenarios I see (A) you are wrong and no body cares about a recycled piece of paper, 99.999999 chance this happens because no one gives a crap except you and wonder girl... or (B) chief gets fired and you cost the city possibily 2.8 million in fines... well bravo my friend. You win Idiot of the decade award....

Saturday, November 25
Reality

Mr. Cote be prepared. As the previous two bloggers demonstrated, the old special interest playbook of "attack the messenger when you can't attack the message" is now in play. It was only a few years ago when a concerned taxpayer had the audacity to question the sustainability of Warwick's pensions that he was subjected to the same fate.

Wilkinson, the union attack dog, called that individual a "hobbyist" thirteen times before he uttered a single word. Wilkinson's purpose was to destroy his credibility before he even got started. Lloyd, the WFD union president, contacted that person's employer and threatened a boycott if he wasn't terminated. So much for free speech in Warwick. Thankfully, his employer told Lloyd that their employee had ever right to voice his opinion. We still live in America.

I found it outlandish that one of the previous bloggers told you (Mr. Cote) that you are responsible if the city gets fined because the Fire Chief did not maintain the state mandated forms. It 's too bad you have to substitute for Avedisian by making sure everyone performs their job properly. Anyone who attends budget hearing year after year hear the same refrain from the acting Fire Chiefs....this year because of the new fire recruits the fire overtime will be under control. Unfortunately, it hasn't happened for over 10 years.

I'm sure the retired seniors in Warwick that have barely gotten a Social Security COLA raise in years, the school children who need a new school and taxpayers who have seen their taxes increase every year under Avedisian applaud Mr. Cote for trying to bring accountability to the WFD.

Saturday, November 25
Thecaptain

CHAPTER 38-1

Custody and Protection

SECTION 38-1-10

§ 38-1-10 Disposal of records.

No public official may mutilate, destroy, sell, loan, or otherwise dispose of any public record without the consent of the public records administration program of the secretary of state.

History of Section.

(P.L. 1981, ch. 353, § 4; P.L. 2000, ch. 233, § 1.)

CHAPTER 38-1

Custody and Protection

SECTION 38-1-1.1

§ 38-1-1.1 Definitions.

For the purpose of this chapter:

(1) "Agency" or "public body" shall mean any executive, legislative, judicial, regulatory, administrative body of the state, or any political subdivision thereof; including, but not limited to, any department, division, agency, commission, board, office, bureau, authority, any school, fire, or water district, or other agency or quasi-public agency of Rhode Island state or local government which exercises governmental functions, or any other public or private agency, person, partnership, corporation, or business entity acting on behalf of any public agency.

(2) "Public business" means any matter over which the public body has supervision, control, jurisdiction, or advisory power.

(3) "Public record" or "public records" shall mean all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, tapes, photographs, films, sound recordings, or other material regardless of physical form or characteristics made or received pursuant to law or ordinance or in connection with the transaction of official business by any agency.

(4) "Supervisor of the regulatory body" means the chief or head of a section having enforcement responsibility for a particular statute or set of rules and regulations within a regulatory agency.

History of Section.

(P.L. 1981, ch. 353, § 1; P.L. 2011, ch. 363, § 40; P.L. 2012, ch. 451, § 1.)

Custody and Protection

SECTION 38-1-4

§ 38-1-4 Keeping of records in vaults provided – Penalty.

When not in use, the records and documents shall be kept in the fireproof rooms, vaults, or safes provided for them. Whoever unlawfully keeps in his or her possession any public record, or unlawfully removes the record from the room in which it is usually kept, or alters, defaces, mutilates, or destroys any public record, or violates any provision of this section, shall, for each offense, be punished by a fine of not less than twenty dollars ($20.00) nor more than five hundred dollars ($500).

History of Section.

(G.L. 1909, ch. 41, § 4; P.L. 1911, ch. 700, § 1; G.L. 1923, ch. 42, § 4; G.L. 1938, ch. 494, § 4; G.L. 1956, § 38-1-4.)

Sunday, November 26
Warwickcitizen

Captain

Thanks for the civic lesson, but once again you are a fountain of misinformation and continue to assainate the character of a 30 public servant. That’s more than we can say for you who is afraid to put his name on the ballot for fear of complete embarrassment. I need to know your hatred for the Fire Department stems from. What are you hide? Maybe your record will be exposed

Sunday, November 26
Thecaptain

Chief admits at the budget hearings that he disposed of all Form 109's. Where is the misinformation Mr. Lloyd?

Custody and Protection

SECTION 38-1-10

§ 38-1-10 Disposal of records.

No public official may mutilate, destroy, sell, loan, or otherwise dispose of any public record without the consent of the public records administration program of the secretary of state.

See if you are intelligent enough to address the point of the story. Or are you incapable of that Mr. LLoyd?

Sunday, November 26
Justanidiot

If you cannot do the simplest of tasks, that are specifically outlined for you and done by all of your colleagues, what can we expect for the carrying out of complex tasks where there are no clear cut guidelines?

Monday, November 27
WwkVoter

When you attack the messenger, it looks like you can't argue with any facts. If nothing else, you can't honestly say that Cote lacks his facts. As to whether he runs for office, you'd have to also argue that every single watchdog also has no merit unless they also run for office. Ralph Nader for example, Woodward and Bernstein, Frank Serpico, Daniel Ellsberg, the list would never end with people who made a difference using the first amendment to question our government , but some keyboard commandos here (who reap the benefit), say the whistleblowers and watchdogs need to "run for office" or their facts are not important? Really?

Monday, November 27
Thecaptain

SECTION 2. SUBSTITUTIONS

The right to substitute at any time shall be permitted, provided, however, that permission

in writing to substitute must be obtained from the Battalion Chief on duty.

This contract language refers to the legal document named City of Warwick

Warwick Fire Department Form 109 - CHANGE OF SHIFT.

MUST be retained by law for 4 years. According to Mr. Bill Lloyd, I guess pointing out this complete failure to abide my state law makes me a coward and that I must run for office to appease him. Still waiting for Bill LLoyd to go on the Mat Allen show on WPRO, as he promised, to discuss why he sent a letter demanding a Warwick resident be fired from his job after that resident made a presentation on unsustainable pensions. We await your appearance Bill.

Monday, November 27
Warwickcitizen

Captain

Once again you continue to attack people’s character, I think I figured it out.

Is it the 30 gallons of gas you poured down the sewer and got caught? or is it that when you owned a dive shop you didn’t get the competitive bid for the dive equipment for the WFD? Just asking?..

I think you might want to get a legal opinion on what is a public document and what isn’t. We know your a Philadelphia lawyer but might be wrong on this one as you are on most

Monday, November 27
Thecaptain

Yeah, that's it Bill. Talk about false hoods. Like I said, you are unable to speak to the content. By the way, you may want to take a reading comprehension class to understand the simple language of the law. Then go to the secretary of state's office, as I did. Bill LLoyd and Scott Small, as union presidents can only attack the messenger, never the point on the table. Funny guys.

Monday, November 27
Warwickcitizen

Captain

Here you go again thinking you are a lawyer, your a malcontent who has nothing better to do but harass hard working public servants .

Monday, November 27
Thecaptain

Once again, Bill Lloyd cannot speak to the facts. We should all turn our backs to the WFD and allow them to violate state and local laws because they are all self proclaimed hero's. None of them can speak to the facts of the issue at hand. I love it.

Monday, November 27
Kammy

You accuse Cote of attacking the messenger when you are doing the exact same thing! Mr. Cote is a private citizen that has spent his own time and money researching the issue. There is a reason why citizens are allowed to see public records and when a department or the head of the department states they destroyed the records, there is only one question to ask: WHY?

Warwickcitizen: How can it be considered frivolous when the contents of the destroyed paperwork are public record? Just because you feel it isn't important to keep doesn't mean the law should be broken. I have retention laws I must abide by and be in compliance with and I work as a private employee. How much more should a taxpayer funded department abide by the law?

Warwick Man: Please know that it isn't just 2 people that are concerned about the destruction of public records nor the impact of the shift changes and how they affect taxpayer dollars. I do give a crap. The coincidence of the public record request and the timing of the destruction of documents is concerning.

By law, certain entities must retain certain documents for a period of time. This goes for both public and private businesses. I have to keep mine for 7 years. Not once have I been asked to produce them but I do retain them nonetheless. How much more accountable should a public entity that receives funds from taxpayers be accountable?

It isn't malcontent or unsubstantiated accusations. The Chief is on record stating the documents were destroyed prior to the 4 year period. These destroyed records could have proven or disproved the lingering questions MANY have regarding the non-reconciled OT and cost overages the Department has encountered year after year after year. I think we are entitled to answers and those answers do not seem to be coming from the Mayor, the Finance Director or the Chief. A concerned citizen is asking these questions and it seems to have hit a few hot buttons along the way. Why?

Tuesday, November 28
JohnStark

Mr. Cote has clearly done his homework. He has dotted the i's, crossed the t's, and is clearly onto something. The Blob, comprised of municipal hacks known for "Come on...you know how the game is played (wink wink)" are furious. Their only defense is to impugn Mr. Cote's character. The Blob, to include local pols who have turned a blind eye to this, is corrupt. Period. Given that the Warwick FD receives federal funds, it is clear that an FBI investigation is in order It's time for the grown ups, who do not have a brother-in-law or cousin in the FD, to take over this mess.

Wednesday, November 29