- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2014

Nine D.C. fire department employees came forward in response to an agency call to report undisclosed prior arrests and driving infractions ahead of a plan to conduct criminal-background checks on 1,800 first responders.

But those background checks are now on hold as agency officials and the firefighters union wrangle over the manner in which they are conducted.

Fire Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe called for the criminal-background checks in order to identify those who failed to disclose prior charges amid a series of employee arrests that has now reached 14 since October.

The latest arrest was made Thursday in Prince George’s County on arson charges after authorities said a firefighter set his car ablaze to collect insurance money.

In response to the series of arrests, Chief Ellerbe issued a special order in January that gave employees 10 days to report any prior infractions from the past three years or face termination if infractions were later uncovered.

Internal-affairs investigators are reviewing employees’ reports, said fire department spokesman Tim Wilson, who declined to give a breakdown of the types of offenses reported.

“The majority of the members who self-reported disclosed traffic-related offenses that impacted their driver’s licenses,” Mr. Wilson wrote in an email response to questions.

Of the 14 arrests reported since October, charges against D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services employees ranged from possession of a handgun with an obliterated serial number to illegal drug possession.

Thursday’s arrest involved firefighter Marcus Anthony Jackson, who was charged with second-degree arson and attempt to commit fraud. Prince George’s County investigators said he falsely reported his 2006 Dodge Charger stolen in the District on Jan. 24. It had been found on fire in Capitol Heights the night before.

Investigators said cell-tower records indicate that Mr. Jackson’s phone was in the immediate area where the burning car was located just 13 minutes before it was found. While Mr. Jackson told authorities he was in possession of the only two keys for the vehicle, investigators also determined that the car’s ignition had not been tampered with.

Chief Ellerbe’s special order did not specify how or when the background checks would be conducted.

“Since the union already is fighting us on the background checks, Chief Ellerbe told me we are waiting on the approval to move forward,” wrote Keith St. Clair, spokesman for Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Paul A. Quander Jr., in an email response to questions about the process.

Edward Smith, president of the D.C. Fire Fighters Association, expressed concern over the type of information — including personal financial data — that could be unearthed during background checks and who would have access to it.

“We don’t want anything to go unreported. There has to be accountability,” Mr. Smith said. “But we want to know exactly who, what, when and how.”

The union has requested a meeting with department leaders to sort out the details, but thus far has not gotten one, Mr. Smith said. In the meantime, labor leaders have a suggestion for how the checks should be handled.

“We think it should be administered by a third party, such as D.C. [human resources], and only those infractions should be reported to the fire department,” Mr. Smith said.

The fire department conducts background checks when vetting potential employees, but once individuals are hired, it is their responsibility to report any arrests or convictions.

Under current policy, the only employees who have been subject to background checks while working for the agency are those detailed to work at presidential inaugurations. Those checks are done by the Secret Service, Mr. Wilson said.

Under the previous administration of Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin, the fire department set a goal of running background checks on its force.

According to agency performance records, the department pledged in fiscal 2009 to conduct background checks on its then 2,100-member workforce. The records indicate only 133 background checks were completed that year. Background checks do not show up again on performance records in subsequent fiscal years.

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