A top official in the Buffalo Fire Department is accused of misusing the county’s criminal background check system to improperly snoop on at least one of his colleagues.
The department is investigating the allegation against Deputy Commissioner Joseph Tomizzi, and the union representing firefighters suspects that abuse of the system is more widespread than just one incident. The union is asking outside law enforcement agencies to investigate, as well.
Firefighter William T. Buyers filed a discrimination complaint Thursday with the city’s Human Resources Department after he received official confirmation that Tomizzi, who was then working as an arson investigator, ran Buyers’ name through the background check system in December 2009. The check was made the night before Buyers was to begin working in the arson investigation unit where Tomizzi, like his peers, had legitimate access to the system to probe suspected arsonists.
“He had no reason to run me,” Buyers said in an interview Monday. “I don’t know how many of my family members he’s run. He’s abusing his power. My wife’s in law enforcement. Did he run her? Who knows what he’s doing.”
The county maintains the criminal background check system, which is only to be used in the course of criminal investigations, said John Glascott, commissioner of Erie County Central Police Services. The county uses guidelines on proper use of the system provided by the state’s Department of Criminal Justice Services, which all new users are made aware of during training, Glascott said.
“It’s used for criminal-justice purposes only,” he said. “You’ve got to have a reason.”
Each user’s search history is tracked by the system. Glascott declined to comment on Tomizzi’s use of the system, which he characterized as a personnel matter within the Fire Department.
“We will provide the Buffalo fire commissioner or his investigative body whatever they need,” he said. “It’s up to the Buffalo fire commissioner what he wants to do with it.”
Fire Commissioner Garnell W. Whitfield Jr. said he had not yet seen Buyers’ complaint but that he is aware of it and that an internal investigation is underway.
“We’ll investigate any complaints we get,” Whitfield said in an interview Monday. Tomizzi’s job duties have not changed, Whitfield said.
Glascott and Whitfield would not say whether Tomizzi’s access to the system had been suspended.
The Buffalo News requested to interview Tomizzi through the city’s Department of Communications, but a city spokesman said Tomizzi had no comment. A News email request sent directly to Tomizzi got no response.
Buffalo Professional Firefighters Association Local 282 has requested the results of the Fire Department’s internal investigation. The union also sent letters seeking outside investigations from Erie County’s Central Police Services, the county attorney, the state attorney general and the U.S. Department of Justice. The letters note that an audit of Tomizzi’s use was conducted by Central Police Services, the results of which were turned over to Whitfield.
“It’s an abuse of power,” said Thomas P. Barrett, Local 282 vice president. “He shouldn’t be running City of Buffalo employees.”
Barrett knows definitively of Buyer’s case but suspects that there are others.
“It’s a big issue to us,” he said. “We want to protect our members’ rights.”
Barrett said another case, involving a now-retired firefighter, didn’t gain any traction when the retiree discovered Tomizzi’s search after the fact and complained to the Department of Human Resources about it a few years ago.
Background checks are performed on firefighters with their knowledge before they are hired.
Buyers, a 17-year veteran, was not aware that a background check had been performed in 2009 until it was confirmed by the county’s Department of Central Police Services on Jan. 22. He recently learned that Tomizzi was known to do this, which prompted his inquiry to the agency.
Before Buyers joined the arson investigation unit, he and Tomizzi had only brief interactions, he said. His complaint states that “Tomizzi violated my civil rights by running an arrest record check on me without just cause.”
Buyers recently left arson investigation, which Tomizzi oversees, and is working as a firefighter again in a fire house. Buyers decided to leave before he was aware of the background check, he said.