A battalion fire chief who found a firefighter not guilty on charges related to the discovery of beer in a U Street Northwest fire station was transferred in what he says is retaliation for going against the wishes of the D.C. fire chief.
“His actions are a classic example of workplace bullying,” D.C. Battalion Fire Chief Kevin Sloan, a 27-year veteran of the department, said of his transfer to a 9-to-5 desk job by Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe. “It’s not ethical, it’s not moral. It’s retaliatory action.”
Chief Sloan said his “punitive” transfer mirrors the scenario that unfolded after another battalion chief, who oversaw disciplinary proceedings for two other firefighters involved in the same September incident, handed down a lesser punishment to the men than the 24-hour suspensions initially proposed.
The transfer moved Chief Sloan from operations, where he assumed command for incidents in Northeast D.C., to the logistics division overseeing use of supplies in fire stations. It was ordered hours after he turned in paperwork on a disciplinary decision, finding Lt. Henry Dent not guilty of violating department rules that prohibit the acceptance of gifts and the presence of alcohol on fire department property.
“I turned it in Monday at 1 p.m. By 5 p.m., I was transferred,” he said of the order issued May 14.
Coupled with the demotion of the other battalion fire chief, Chief Sloan worries the outcome of his case will influence the decisions made by commanding officials.
“For the rank and file, this takes away a fair, equitable disciplinary trial for the members,” Chief Sloan said.
He was assigned to handle the disciplinary case against one of three firefighters brought up on charges after a D.C. resident delivered two 12-packs of beer to Engine Co. 9 to thank firefighters who extinguished a fire at his home.
About a week after the resident brought the beer, Chief Ellerbe visited the station and found three cans of the beer left in the fire station refrigerator. He ordered that the station be taken out of service for two hours while employees were tested for alcohol. None were found to have been drinking.
Three firefighters were brought up on charges and a department official proposed a 24-hour suspension in each of the cases, according to department records. Chief Ellerbe is listed as the sole complainant against all three firefighters in department documents.
Former Battalion Chief Richard Sterne was demoted to the rank of captain on April 8 after he chose to reprimand rather than suspend the other two men involved in the incident. He has since filed an appeal of the demotion with the District’s Office of Employee Appeals and is scheduled for a mediation hearing in June, an attorney representing him in the case said.
In a notice to Capt. Sterne advising him of the demotion, Chief Ellerbe cited his ruling in the beer case as the reason for the reduction in rank.
“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.
Chief Sloan received no written explanation for his transfer. Through department spokesman Lon Walls, Chief Ellerbe declined to comment on the case because it is considered a personnel matter.
After Capt. Sterne’s demotion, Lt. Dent said he was concerned that Chief Sloan would be pressured to find him guilty.
“I wasn’t worried about Chief Sloan,” Lt. Dent said. “You get to know which guys are honorable guys, and Chief Sloan has always had the reputation of doing the right thing.”
Lt. Dent said he worries that if Chief Ellerbe disagrees with Chief Sloan’s ruling, the chief may choose to step in to alter the decision in the case.
Mr. Walls said the fire chief has the final authority on disciplinary cases, but he typically signs off on a battalion chief’s findings.
As part of Chief Sloan’s findings, he determined that Lt. Dent was not present at the fire station when the beer was delivered, so he could not be held accountable for accepting a gift. He also ruled that when Lt. Dent was notified by another firefighter that there was still beer in the station refrigerator, he told the firefighter to get rid of it but did not have enough time to check to ensure the order was followed through before Chief Ellerbe arrived.
Chief Sloan said the investigation was unusual and that evidence in the case went missing. In one instance, when he requested copies of taped interviews with witnesses the administration simply sent him paper photocopies of CDs, rather than the CDs themselves.
As a result of the transfer, which means that Chief Sloan now reports to work five days a week instead of working a full 24 hours followed by three full days off, he may be forced into retirement.
“My parents are both elderly and I’m the primary caregiver,” he said. “On my days off, a lot of my time is spent taking care of them.”
He also estimates he will lose $10,000 in annual pay due to the shift change.
Chief Sloan plans to file a complaint regarding the transfer.