Mayor Vincent C. Gray hired and the D.C. Council confirmed Kenneth Ellerbe to head the District’s fire department without ever requesting a copy of his personnel file from the chief’s former employer in Sarasota County, Fla. — a file that contained a complaint of sexual harassment.
The complaint, recently obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, is supported by statements attesting to inappropriate behavior and intimidation on the part of Chief Ellerbe, who headed Sarasota’s fire department.
The disclosure raises concerns about how the politically connected fire chief was selected and whether he was vetted at all before being hand-picked in December 2010 to lead a 2,000-member agency with a budget of nearly $200 million.
Sarasota County human resources officials said their records indicated that some news outlets requested information from the personnel file of Chief Ellerbe, who left the District as a deputy chief in August 2009 after a 27-year career to work in Florida under a controversial “personnel-exchange agreement.” No one else — including the Gray transition team, the D.C. Council committee charged with vetting the nomination or anyone else from the D.C. government — asked to see the file documenting the chief’s 16-month Florida tenure.
The file contains a complaint that Chief Ellerbe leered at a female employee on several occasions with a statement that the woman submitted detailing the incidents. When the woman’s concerns were brought to the chief by her supervisor, the supervisor said in a statement of his own that Chief Ellerbe dismissed the concern with disparaging remarks.
Union officials in Sarasota also discussed incidents suggesting that Chief Ellerbe’s behavior in Sarasota was vindictive and retaliatory and had a chilling effect on employees filing complaints against him.
Some of the same concerns about intimidation have arisen in the year since Chief Ellerbe took over the D.C. fire department. Some firefighters suggested a pattern of reprisals against people who publicly speak out against his administration.
Asked in writing and on the phone about the process by which Chief Ellerbe was vetted and why the city did not seek his employment records, Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro said the administration could not discuss personnel information. He said Chief Ellerbe, who earns an annual salary of $187,302, was authorized to speak for himself about the complaint.
Chief Ellerbe, in an email and in a subsequent interview, denied the allegations in the complaint and said the statements supporting it were “unfounded and untrue.”
‘You want me to tell them that?’
According to one of the written statements, a Sarasota County battalion chief met with Chief Ellerbe and an assistant chief to discuss the concerns of a couple of female firefighters he supervised who said “they feel uncomfortable around the chief because he looks them up and down and ‘talks to my chest.’ “
During a June 28, 2010, meeting, Battalion Chief Joe Robinson, who also serves as a reserve deputy in the county sheriff’s department, said he was puzzled by the response he got from Chief Ellerbe about the concerns.
“He said, ‘It’s part of my heritage to check people out, and you can tell them that.’ I proceeded to ask him, ‘You want me to tell them that?’ He responded, ‘I haven’t seen anything in this department I would want to undress with my eyes anyway, and you can tell them that.’ “
Asked why the women did not come directly to Chief Ellerbe with their concerns, Chief Robinson wrote in his statement that he told Chief Ellerbe it was because Chief Ellerbe had stopped by fire stations, and “told the crews that you are a ‘vindictive bastard’ and that if anyone ever crossed you that you would see to it that they lost [their] job.”
When asked in an interview about the statement, Chief Ellerbe initially said Chief Robinson was a subordinate and he would not have discussed the matter with him. But when read the exchange documented in Chief Robinson’s statement, Chief Ellerbe said he recalled Chief Robinson questioning him, though he denied making the quoted remarks.
Reached by phone, Chief Robinson said he stands by his version of the conversation. Assistant Fire Chief Kevin Dillion, who the documents say was present for the exchange, has retired from Sarasota government and could not be reached for comment.
Chief Ellerbe, in an email, characterized the incidents as part of a union backlash over an initiative he began in Sarasota to reduce overtime costs.
“This created tension with the union, prompting them to encourage a member to falsely accuse me,” he wrote. “Once they realized that I was prepared to initiate legal action, the accuser failed to materialize.”
But in an interview, the woman who initiated the complaint that appears in Chief Ellerbe’s file, 10-year department veteran Carolyn Norwood, disputed Chief Ellerbe’s claim that she was put up to filing a statement by the Sarasota fire department’s union.
“He had made it very clear when he took the position that he doesn’t put up with anything, and it’s his way,” Ms. Norwood said, adding that she feared she would be passed over for a promotion if it was known at the time she was the one who filed the complaint.
“I had the utmost respect for him until these events took place and affected me professionally and emotionally,” Ms. Norwood said.
In her written statement, Ms. Norwood wrote that on four occasions between August 2009 and June 2010, the chief looked her up and down in a way that made her uncomfortable. Initially, she said, she tried to brush off the encounters and thought that, perhaps, the chief was looking at a name tag or her uniform.
“I thought it was my imagination, but other women said, ‘No, that happened to me, too,’ ” Ms. Norwood said.
The final encounter that led to her decision to lodge an informal complaint occurred at a meeting prior to a firefighter’s funeral. She described wearing casual civilian clothes, including a T-shirt and long cargo shorts.
“While standing in front of him during my self-introduction, Chief Ellerbe again looked me up and down. At this introduction, I held eye contact and again saw his eyes linger at the area of my chest,” Ms. Norwood stated in her complaint.
According to a report on the incident by the Sarasota County government, Chief Ellerbe said he conducted uniform inspections and often looked at employees’ shirts or badges, where employees’ names were printed, in order to learn their names.
Chief Ellerbe said in an interview that he recalled conducting a uniform inspection before a firefighter’s funeral but reiterated that the sexual-harassment claim was false.
“The allegation of sexual harassment was false,” Chief Ellerbe said. “I don’t do the kind of things that were alleged.”
In an email, Chief Ellerbe said he requested an investigation into the incident.
“The county chose to close the matter without going further after determining that the complaint was unfounded,” he said. “If I had committed the act that I was accused of, I would have been terminated. I wasn’t. The accusations were false and completely unfounded.”
But the report offered no findings or conclusions regarding the incident, stating there was no way to verify whether sexual harassment occurred. The report said officials “verbally counseled” Chief Ellerbe on the government’s policies on harassment and discrimination in the workplace.
Dave Bullock, deputy Sarasota County administrator during Chief Ellerbe’s tenure, said verbal counseling is standard for any complaint and that the one against Chief Ellerbe was treated “like we treat every other one.”
Ms. Norwood said she did not pursue the complaint further because Sarasota’s human resources department told her Chief Ellerbe was counseled on the issue and that it would not happen again. From the time she lodged the complaint until Chief Ellerbe left the department in December 2010, Ms. Norwood said, she had no further face-to-face interaction with him.
Reflecting on the chief’s tenure in Sarasota, Mr. Bullock said Chief Ellerbe worked diligently to reduce overtime costs and came up with a staffing system that is still in use. The chief’s personnel file also includes an annual evaluation in which he is well-reviewed.
“While he was here, we got good value from Ken,” Mr. Bullock said.
Merv Kennell, president of the union that represents Sarasota firefighters and paramedics, said it was true the union was unhappy with Chief Ellerbe because of some of his policy decisions, but he vehemently denied the chief’s charge that the union prompted a complaint.
“The chief’s claim is absolutely false,” Mr. Kennell said.
Mr. Kennell said that, aside from the employees whose concerns Chief Robinson represented, he was made aware of six female employees who shared concerns about purported harassment from Chief Ellerbe on the basis of anonymity.
The concerns The Times reviewed — either in statements in Chief Ellerbe’s file or anecdotally — involved inappropriate looks or comments. None of the complaints involved physical contact.
“Many of the complaints seemed to arise out of station visits, where the chief reportedly suggested his vindictive nature if anyone were to oppose his views and that he was prepared to take legal action against people who said anything about him or his policies,” Mr. Kennell said, adding that the chief dismissed the concerns as false and “folks simply not respecting him or understanding him.”
He said the employees were offered options for filing official complaints.
“Most opted out of taking any action and later told me it was on the basis they feared retaliation,” Mr. Kennell said.
In the course of an interview discussing his frequent clashes with the union in Sarasota, Chief Ellerbe offered an off-the-cuff remark, saying he was the “first African-American chief in the department.” But when asked to elaborate on the significance of that fact, he declined to discuss it further.
The idea that D.C. officials did not ask to review the file raises additional questions because of the way Chief Ellerbe left the city in 2009.
The Times reported in December 2009 that when Chief Ellerbe took the Sarasota job, instead of resigning from the department, he departed under an unusual personnel-exchange agreement that placed him in on-leave-without-pay status.
A fire department spokesman said at the time the arrangement was made to keep Chief Ellerbe in the department until he turned 50 so he could collect his pension immediately upon his retirement instead of deferring his benefits until age 55, as he would have to do if he simply resigned.
Staying on the District’s books would have allowed Chief Ellerbe, whose salary was $149,892, to collect up to 80 percent of his final pay, or almost $600,000 over the five years until he turned 55.
The Times obtained a copy of the personnel-exchange agreement, which notes that the period of the exchange was to run through April 10, 2010 — Chief Ellerbe’s 50th birthday.
Fire officials said at the time that then-Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin was unaware of the exchange agreement until finding out from news reports. An assistant chief, Brian K. Lee, signed off on paperwork authorizing the agreement in July 2009.
But after reports in The Times, officials sent a letter to Chief Ellerbe in December 2009 that revoked the personnel-exchange program that had allowed him to serve with both departments at once. Chief Lee ordered Chief Ellerbe to return to the District. Chief Ellerbe resigned from the D.C. fire department in January 2010.
Mr. Gray did not address the agreement specifically when he announced Chief Ellerbe’s appointment in December 2010.
“I think he operated with integrity,” the mayor said at the time.
On the agreement and its end date, Chief Ellerbe said in an email that the date “was selected to limit any financial exposure that may have continued beyond my 50th birthday for the District.” Asked to elaborate in a subsequent phone interview, Chief Ellerbe criticized the reporting of his personnel-exchange agreement and declined to comment.
He said he enjoyed his time in Sarasota and “learned a lot regarding executive management.”
The Gray administration likewise declined to revisit the subject of the personnel-exchange agreement or why it did not inquire about Chief Ellerbe’s performance, despite the fact that the agreement says the stated purpose for the “temporary assignment” was for Chief Ellerbe to “acquire experience as a fire chief in a municipal fire department and thereby be better able to provide the experience of leadership in an executive manager’s role.”
Chief Ellerbe’s appointment as D.C. fire chief was met with skepticism from some people who thought Mr. Gray should have conducted a national search for the position.
The two had long-standing ties: Chief Ellerbe served as a committeeman for the Ward 7 Democrats, the area of the city where Mr. Gray lives and which Mr. Gray represented on the council before he became council chairman and then mayor. Chief Ellerbe also made some modest financial contributions to Mr. Gray’s mayoral campaign, offering $175 in three donations.
In January 2011, the fire chief in a televised interview with WRC-TV Channel 4 reminisced about watching Mr. Gray play softball, as his father did.
“I’ve known the mayor since I was 14 years old,” Chief Ellerbe said.
The Gray administration declined to comment when asked whether any of those factors played a role in Chief Ellerbe’s selection. Mr. Gray told the Washington Examiner in January 2011 that he chose not to conduct a search for a fire chief because he wanted “to get permanent leadership in there.”
“I have been through interim leadership before, and it creates instability,” Mr. Gray told the newspaper. “I feel great about Ellerbe taking over.”
It’s unclear whether any complaints similar to the Sarasota complaint were filed in the District over the course of Chief Ellerbe’s career. The point man currently handling Freedom of Information Act requests in the fire department, Gerald Pennington, said city law provides for no access to personnel records and that equal employment opportunity complaints of discrimination or harassment were not subject to disclosure.
D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, charged with vetting Chief Ellerbe’s nomination, said he “did not see” the Sarasota personnel file or the complaint against the chief.
“We talked to Chief Ellerbe regarding his experience in Sarasota,” he said of the vetting process. He said committee staff spoke with the D.C. unions that represent firefighters and paramedics and ran a “Google search” on Chief Ellerbe.
The D.C. Firefighters Association raised objections during Chief Ellerbe’s confirmation hearing, saying the union thought a national search was appropriate. Ed Smith, president of the union, said he still thinks a national search should have been conducted.
“Given the size of the city, the fact that it’s one of the biggest departments in the nation and especially the threat of terrorism, what we have to respond to, absolutely we should have had a national search,” he said.
Anne Renshaw, president of the D.C. Federation of Citizens Associations, was a member of the transition committee charged with making recommendations to Mr. Gray about fire and emergency medical services priorities.
Ms. Renshaw also supported a national search and said she came away from the process disappointed, in part because an executive summary of the committee’s work presented to Mr. Gray by his transition team was not voted on or agreed to by committee members.
“I feel cheated,” she said. “I think the citizens should feel cheated it was not done correctly.” Ms. Renshaw said she thinks “there must be a national search for a department as important as the fire and EMS department in the nation’s capital.”
Asked about the fact that Chief Ellerbe’s personnel file was not requested by city officials, she replied, “I would say that’s very disturbing.”