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    Fire chief's vacation time questioned

    Records also show that a Tennessee vacation wasn't the first time Pete Botto used a city van for recreation.

    By AMY HERDY, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 23, 2002

    TAMPA -- Last month, Tampa fire rescue Chief Pete Botto was suspended for a week after he took a city van on an out-of-state family vacation.

    It turns out, that wasn't the first time Botto used the fire rescue van for recreation.

    What's more, Botto never recorded the time as vacation, taking regular pay instead and stockpiling hours that can be cashed out when he retires.

    A St. Petersburg Times investigation into Botto's work records reveals:

    The fire chief has documented only 33 hours vacation since 1998 and stands to cash out more than $92,000 when he retires next year.

    On several occasions, Botto drove the van and several firefighters to Orlando to play jai alai during his work hours.

    For his part, Botto says the reason he does not document vacation is that he doesn't take any. Since he is set to retire in June 2003, he said, he is saving up his vacation hours to cash them in.

    "Usually at this stage, you try to avoid using annual leave, try to avoid taking vacations," said Botto, who is paid $119,000 a year.

    When he drove the city van to Tennessee and back for vacation, Botto said, it was over New Year's weekend. He said he only used one day of vacation, which he did not document.

    "Bad oversight on my part," he said.

    For city employees, more than six weeks of accumulated vacation time becomes sick time, said city personnel director Sara Lang. At retirement, a city employee can be paid for half of his unused sick time, she said.

    City records show Botto has accumulated more than 3,000 hours, which would cash out to more than $92,000 when he retires.

    Botto's personal work calendar reflects vacation on several dates, including Sept. 27 and 28, 2001, and Feb. 13, 2002. He did not, however, take vacation hours for payroll purposes for those dates.

    Botto said he had "no idea" if he had actually gone on vacation on those days. He said that if he does not document leave that he takes, he makes up his hours by working nights and weekends.

    Botto, 56, currently has eight weeks of vacation available to him.

    Additionally, there is no record of Botto requesting leave time for driving to Orlando with other fire department employees during work hours to play jai alai.

    The city had no system for documenting who uses the rescue van or the purpose of the trip. Botto said he took the 15-seat passenger van "four or five times" to Orlando to play jai alai, and it "probably won't be done anymore."

    "Hey, it's been done for other things," Botto said of the van's use for personal trips. "That's something people don't want to hear. But that's a fact."

    He called the trips "a morale booster. It's a nice thing that's always been done."

    Botto's boss and close friend, Mayor Dick Greco, says he knew about the payroll situation as well as the jai alai trips.

    "I was aware there was one day he should have signed up" for vacation hours but did not, Greco said. He said Botto's weeklong suspension was punishment for that payroll violation as well as the van use. At the time, however, reporters were told only that Botto was being sanctioned for using the van.

    Greco said those details were just between himself and Botto.

    Although the mayor last month said Botto was suspended for taking the van for a week, he told the Times Monday he did not believe Botto had taken an entire week of vacation.

    As for Botto's accumulation of vacation hours, Greco said, "Maybe he didn't take any (vacation)."

    Greco said he knew Botto was playing jai alai in Orlando and told him, "It's not a good idea."

    "I said, "Well, Pete, it might not look right to people,"' Greco said. But Greco said he was more concerned about the van being taken out of state.

    Employees at Orlando Jai Alai know Botto well. Located at Fern Park, a suburb north of Orlando, the jai alai courts are 94 miles from downtown Tampa, more than a two-hour drive one-way.

    Botto has been there "about 25 times" in the past two years, said Elori Eloriaga, who books court reservations.

    "He comes sometimes twice a month," Eloriaga said. "Usually on Tuesday or Wednesday mornings."

    Botto is usually accompanied by five or six firefighters from Tampa, he said, and they play for a couple of hours.

    Botto remembers it differently. He said he would "be surprised" if he had been to Orlando to play jai alai during work hours more than four or five times.

    "Taking that trip up there -- three hours to play an hour and a half -- it's not that much fun," he said.

    The trips are worth the effort, he said, because Tampa firefighters play jai alai in the firefighter Olympics and there is no other place to practice.

    If Botto gets his way, that will change.

    The fire chief added a $260,000 budget item for the "18th Avenue Playground Botto Jai-Alai Court" this year to the city budget with only a phone call, said Joe Abrams of the budget office.

    The project, which was not funded this year, will be requested on the budget for the next five years, Abrams said.

    "He's been bugging us for a long time for jai alai courts," he said. "I guess he loves the game."

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