After at least five years, the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) union has stopped taking millions from the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA), a charity fire fighters raise money for every year, according to the latest union reports.
Local fire departments raise money for the MDA through their annual “Fill the Boot” campaign, during which fire fighters stand on street corners asking passers-by to drop a few dollars in a boot to help children facing muscular dystrophy. The annual event has raised tens of millions for the MDA over the years.
However, starting in at least 2015, the IAFF began receiving payments from the MDA. The payments – often divided over four transactions – would generally amount to roughly $1 million per year. Between 2015 and 2019, the IAFF took in over $5.6 million from the MDA in the form of contributions, gifts and grants.
Local fire fighters were largely unaware that the charity they raised money for was making payments into IAFF’s coffers and explanations were not forthcoming from union leadership other than saying the payments were for administrative costs.
According to the 2020 and 2021 union filings, however, the union’s practice came to a quick close following media coverage and criticism from firefighters. In 2020, the IAFF received only one large payment from MDA totaling $287,500 and three smaller payments totaling $26,000.
By 2021, the IAFF took in only $27,000 from the charity, along with an additional $48,461 in funds associated with Roger Lopez, IAFF’s chief administrator for its MDA programs.
The change also coincides with new leadership at IAFF, after long-time President Harold Schaitberger declined to run for re-election amid an on-going federal investigation into an alleged union pension scheme.
Edward Kelly, the IAFF’s secretary-treasurer during the years IAFF took millions from the charity, was elected union president, but not before facing a challenger who pledged to cease accepting so much money from the charity.
During a round-table interview posted to YouTube, Mahlon Mitchell, president of the fire fighters union in Washington who ran against Kelly for IAFF president, said that he understood it “takes money to make money,” and added that he didn’t have all the facts regarding the payments and didn’t know if the expenses of administering the charity drive rose to the level of the payments outlined in the union filings.
“I can promise you this, I will not be okay with us taking more dollars from the MDA than is required for us to do our work on behalf of MDA,” Mitchell said. “I can’t speak to everything that has happened, I can’t speak to the dollar amount… I can tell you than any dollar that comes from the MDA will literally only be to provide some of the administrative cost.”
Greg Markley, also of the Washington fire fighters’ union who unsuccessfully ran for IAFF secretary-treasurer, said the IAFF taking monetary donations from MDA was “wrong, wrong, wrong.”
Markley said a resolution had been put forward during a previous IAFF convention to stop the payments. “The fact that MDA was basically kicking back money to the International, we all thought it was wrong,” Markley said during a conversation posted to YouTube.
“That resolution actually made it to the floor,” Markley said, but added that IAFF leadership refused to consider it and launched “almost a smear campaign against the individual who brought it forward.” He said IAFF leadership was unwilling to budge on the issue. “Certainly, if I get into office, I’ll make every effort to reduce reliance on that money,” Markley said.
Although neither of those candidates were successful in their election bids to union leadership, it appears that at least, for now, the large payments from MDA to the IAFF have been greatly reduced.
Although the initial federal investigation into Schaitberger’s finances and pension earnings stalled, the federal government issued a new subpoena in 2021, according to Politico, that appears to be broader, encompassing his personnel files, employment records and travel expenses among other things.