- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A battalion chief with the District’s fire department has received orders he will be demoted to the rank of captain next month as a result of his handling of the punishment of two firefighters who were faulted for allowing beer in their firehouse.

Reduction-in-rank papers issued to Battalion Chief Richard Sterne on Tuesday state that he will be demoted to the rank of captain on April 8. He estimates the demotion will cost him $12,000 in annual pay.

The demotion stems from Chief Sterne’s decision to reprimand rather than suspend two firefighters involved in a September incident in which a resident delivered two 12-packs of beer to a U Street Northwest fire station to thank firefighters for extinguishing a fire at his home.

Firefighters declined to accept the beer, but the man left it at the fire station and they put the beer into a refrigerator to get it out of public view.

Chief Kenneth Ellerbe later discovered the beer during a visit to the station. Chief Ellerbe closed the station for two hours so all employees there could be tested for alcohol consumption. None of the employees at the station was found to have been drinking.

Punishment of 24-hour suspensions was proposed for two men working at the station, but disciplinary action was left to Chief Sterne. He issued reprimand letters to the two men after determining that “no intentional misconduct” occurred.

“Your failure to hold the members accountable for their receipt of the beer in violation of the Rules of Conduct brings into question your ability to exercise proper judgment in the performance of your assigned duties,” Chief Ellerbe wrote to Chief Sterne in a January notice advising him of the proposed reduction in rank.

A lawyer representing Chief Sterne said he intends to file an appeal on the matter with the District’s Office of Employee Appeals.

“We intend to challenge them to prove the facts of this case, and I don’t think they will be able to do it,” attorney James Pressler said.

The reduction-in-rank papers stated that the action was “supported by a preponderance of evidence,” but provided no additional context for the decision.

Chief Ellerbe previously declined to speak about Chief Sterne’s proposed demotion because it was a personnel matter. He did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.