Buffalo Firefighter May Have Abused His Power in Running a Background Check on a Colleague

By Michael Klazema on 2/12/2014

When William T. Buyers, a firefighter with the Buffalo Fire Department, joined the arson investigation unit in 1999, he had been a veteran of department for 12 years. Like the rest of the firefighters on the squad, Buyers had been subject to a background check when he had been hired. Also like the rest of the employees of the Buffalo Fire Department, Buyers had been perfectly aware that the pre-employment background check was taking place and had given consent to his employers to look into his past. The firefighter figured that, if the department ever required him to undergo further criminal background checks in the future, they would inform him and request a separate authorization.

Therefore, Buyers was quite shocked when he discovered that the Deputy Commissioner of the arson investigation department, had a reputation for running unsanctioned background checks on the men in his unit. Over the past few years, numerous firefighters with the arson unit have made complaints about 
and his alleged habit for running criminal background checks on people set to begin working for his department. However, the Buffalo Fire Department has never done much about those claims, at least, not until now.

When Buyers went digging to find out a little more the unsanctioned screenings, he discovered that he himself had been the subject of an unexpected background check in December 2009; the night before he started with the arson investigation unit, and he was none too pleased about it. Buyers has since filed a formal discrimination complaint with the Buffalo Fire Department, alleging that the Deputy Commissioner ran the background check without proper authorization, and without permission from either the department or from Buyers himself. In Buyer's estimation, Tomizzi is overstepping his boundaries and abusing his power by running unsanctioned background checks, and could be using the background screening system to invade the privacy of people both in and outside of the department.

This background check system in question is actually never meant to run employment screening background checks. Rather, the background check system the commissioner was using to run criminal checks on his colleagues is a criminal background check system maintained by the county. The New York Department of Criminal Justice Services mandates a number of rules for this system, chief among them that it is meant only to be used for criminal investigative purposes. In other words, for the fire department's employees, they are only permitted to use the criminal background check system to look into the pasts of suspected arsonists. Since William Buyers was not under investigation for arson, the background check of him was not only unethical, but also illegal and could potentially cost the Commissioner his job.

Because of the restrictions on the background check system, the system keeps an automatic record of the searches that each user makes. That fact should make it easy for the Buffalo Fire Department to launch an internal investigation into the allegations and to determine precisely who has been running unapproved and inappropriate background checks. The system should also reveal whether or not the accused made a consistent practice of screening his colleagues, something that a local firefighters union has suggested might be a likelihood. The union, Buffalo Professional Firefighters Association Local 282, has jumped onboard with Buyers in his complaint against the commissioner, seeking to defend the privacy rights of firefighters throughout the Buffalo system.


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