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Row erupts over firefighters’ meal allowance fiddle

Published on 03/02/2019

A highly embarrassing row is developing between the Ministry of Internal Administration and the nation’s League of Firefighters over meal allowances and inflated expense claims that have been submitted by fire fighting forces.

In 2018, 57 financial audits were carried out at various of the country’s fire brigade units and in 19 of them, irregularities were detected which led to, “situations of replacement or regularisation of funds transferred by the National Civil Protection Authority.”

The Ministry of Internal Administration is aware of the report submitted last week by its own inspectorate in the Mação fire in 2017 which shows that meal allowances were based on incorrectly and deliberately inflated fire fighter numbers.

The later 2018 report lists irregularities that are not related to fiddling the food allowance system but the Ministry has not revealed what these are.

In August 2017, several firefighters published photos and videos on social media that showed poor quality meals and the then Secretary of State for Internal Administration, Jorge Gomes, ordered the National Civil Protection Authority to conduct a survey on meals to firefighters involved in that month’s serious fires.

This report reached the Ministry in December of that year and has remained an internal document. The report did trigger a suspension of food payments for 20-days due to clear discrepancies identified between the number of meals claimed by 12 fire fighting groups and the number of firefighters actually on the ground.

The Ministry decided generally to tighten up on expense claim procedures to make the verification of invoices, “more appropriate for the communication, monitoring and control of these expenses.”

The spat started after the 2017 report which has open out into a war of words between the Portuguese Firemen’s League and the Ministry.

More audits have followed and several irregularities have been detected.

On Friday, the firemens’ league, faced with more suspicion, threatened to stop distributing meals.

“The simplistic and hasty way now, once again, firefighters are targeted can not fail to arouse the firmest repudiation and protest by calling into question the honour and dignity of humanitarian associations, their leaders, commanders and firefighters,” blasted the league’s chairman, Jaime Marta Soares.

The League says it is aware that no one is above the law and that it has never questioned the inspections and asks for proof that the numbers have been fiddled.

The Government has not yet responded to the league and the Attorney General’s Office said that it recently has received the report on the 2017 fires in Mação, sent in by the Minister of Internal Administration, and that it is, “under analysis.”

However this ends up, someone must now get the blame. The hope is that the firemen’s league, and any of its members, will be blameless but someone has been at it by fraudulently claiming for more meals that there are firemen at many incidents.

The Ministry is well aware of the ‘hero’ status of the nation’s firemen and it is not possible for what seems to be widespread fraud to have been organised at grass roots level.

It is more likely that the meal allowance system has been used for years to channel extra funds to local fire departments and, now that there has been an audit, something must be seen to be done.