- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2001

District of Columbia Fire Chief Ronnie Few told a congressional committee yesterday that he had put an end to an anonymous underground newsletter circulated within the department that contained racist and homophobic material.

Chief Few, who took over the department in July, testified before the House appropriations subcommittee on the District of Columbia that the January issue of the newsletter, Lowlights, was the last. He said he ordered an investigation by the inspector general and sensitivity training for fire department officers.

"I think our fire chief is very much concerned that we may have people in our services that think like that," fire department spokesman Alan Etter said.

Mr. Etter confirmed that five women who are supervisors in the department had filed suit as a result of the newsletters. The women claim they were discriminated against after being targeted for attacks in "Lowlights."

Mr. Etter wouldn't comment on the content of the newsletter but characterized it as offensive.

"It's hurtful, and it's vitriolic, and it's something the fire department does not sanction or endorse," he said.

D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey also testified before the House appropriations subcommittee on the District. He said he asked for investigations of officers' e-mails after racial slurs and profanity were found. He said officers found to have a racial or gender bias against someone will be disciplined or fired.

"I generally don't agree with the term 'zero tolerance', but in this case there will be zero tolerance," Chief Ramsey said.

In response to a question from Rep. John W. Olver, Massachusetts Democrat, on whether he needs to provide additional training to officers to prevent future e-mail abuses, Chief Ramsey responded:

"My goal is not to rehabilitate them; it is to fire them.

"What we are going through is a few of the officers have tarnished the reputation of the department," Chief Ramsey said.

Ray Sneed, president of the firefighters union, said if it hadn't been for the police e-mail situation, no one would have paid much attention to Lowlights. He stressed that there is no connection.

"You can't compare [Lowlights] to the e-mail situation, and the reason is because the e-mail situation deals with people in the community," he said.

The "internal gossip column" began about 18 months ago and relied on innuendo to take mostly lighthearted jabs at department personnel. "When they first published it, it was kind of comical," Mr. Sneed said. "Everybody kind of looked at it and laughed. Everybody kind of knew who they were talking about."

He conceded some language and illustrations in the January issue crossed a line.

"I saw this last copy yesterday, and I could see how a lot of this stuff could be offensive," Mr. Sneed said.

He said the latest issue of the newsletter contained a welcome to Chief Few that read, "We don't know if anyone has told you yet, but you now work for the worst fire and EMS department in the world."

Fire department spokesman Alan Etter agreed that despite the way the newsletter had started, it had "devolved," and that the last couple of issues were "vitriolic."

He said Chief Few issued a directive in December that the publication should be stopped and personally communicated to officers that he felt it was hurting the department.

The 10-page newsletter often was received by mail and passed hand-to-hand in firehouses or posted on bulletin boards.

Mr. Etter said an investigation is ongoing into who created the newsletter and indicated that the creators could face disciplinary procedures if it is determined they used department time and resources to create it. He said if they created the letter on their own time, certain First Amendment issues would have to be explored before disciplinary action is taken.

But Mr. Sneed argued it's time to put the issue to rest.

"The chief made a move to take it out of circulation and that was a proper move," he said. "I think we're wasting time and energy and resources to do an investigation and find out who it is. We have greater things to worry about in this department than who put out an underground newsletter."

• Jim Keary contributed to this report, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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