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    Tampa fire chief apologizes for van, vacation missteps

    Pete Botto says he will track the use of a department van and will institute accountability measures for documenting vacation time.

    By AMY HERDY and DAVID KARP, Times Staff Writers
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 24, 2002
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    TAMPA -- Tampa fire rescue Chief Pete Botto issued an apology of sorts Tuesday for his personal use of a city van and for his apparent failure to properly document his hours while vacationing and playing jai alai in Orlando.

    "If I did wrong, I swear to God I'm sorry and I'm sorry to everybody," Botto said in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times. "I'll make amends, and you won't see a second time. I'm not proud of what happened."

    Botto said Mayor Dick Greco, his boss and longtime friend, "chewed my butt" for his actions, which included taking a group of firefighters in a fire rescue van numerous times to Orlando to play jai alai.

    "He said some things aren't exactly too bright," Botto recalled. The mayor said Tuesday he would not request a formal inquiry into Botto's transgressions.

    Greco suspended Botto for a week last month after Botto admitted he had taken the van to Tennessee on a family vacation. The Times reported Tuesday that Botto never put in for those vacation hours, taking regular pay instead, a situation the mayor said he knew about and had addressed privately as part of the suspension.

    Botto's work records show that his unused vacation and sick time entitle him to cash out for a lump sum of more than $92,000, which he is eligible to receive when he retires next year. Botto, 56, is paid $119,000 a year.

    City employees, unlike those who work for the county, the School Board and Hillsborough Community College, are able to accumulate vacation time, which they can roll over into unlimited sick hours. They can cash out half of their sick hours when they retire.

    There is no cap on the number of sick hours they can accrue.

    Botto stopped short of admitting he had taken several days of vacation in the past and not put in for that time, though he could not say why days off marked on his personal calendar were not documented as such with the city's payroll department.

    "Truthfully, I don't remember those days," he said. Botto swore he would institute a new system of accountability.

    "To me, it's a learning experience," said Botto, a 34-year veteran of the Fire Department and chief since 1995. "There's got to be better documentation than we've used in the past."

    He declined to disclose the names of the other firefighters who had accompanied him to Orlando, saying those firefighters were all off-duty during the trips.

    As for the use of the van, the fire chief said it would now be tracked with a driving log that documents the driver, the reason for use and the mileage.

    "Me, personally, I'm not going to use it for sure," Botto said.

    Reaction from city officials was cautious.

    City Council member and mayoral candidate Bob Buckhorn said he would withhold judgment on whether Botto did anything wrong.

    "There are always two sides to these things," Buckhorn said.

    He praised Botto as a well-liked fire chief who had boosted morale and improved the department.

    "The department has moved ahead light years under Botto's leadership," Buckhorn said. "He's a good person and a good fire chief."

    Buckhorn denied Tuesday that he was supporting Botto to appease the politically powerful firefighters union. Botto remains exceptionally popular among the rank and file of the union, whose endorsements can prove critical in city elections.

    City Council chairman Charlie Miranda, who also is running for mayor, said he would look into the allegations.

    "I will make comments once I know the whole story," said Miranda, who said the city should limit how much unused sick time and vacation pay city employees can cash in when they retire. He also said employees shouldn't avoid vacation to stockpile cash.

    "If you have vacation time, you should take it," Miranda said. "It is given to you for a reason. You come back and are a little fresher."

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