A group of Lincoln Fire and Rescue’s top brass retaliated against a whistleblower for years after he reported firefighters abusing recruits, according to the city official in charge of investigating workplace discrimination.
At least three chiefs disciplined LFR Capt. Troy Hurd four times over the course of two years and Chief John Huff blocked him from a temporary promotion that comes with a 10 percent pay bump, Kim Taylor-Riley said in a report she gave the mayor in October.
None of those chiefs has been punished.
Taylor-Riley, the city’s director of equity and diversity, said the reasons the chiefs gave to justify their actions were a pretext to cover retaliatory motives.
“I was put up on a pedestal so even the littlest or minutest mistakes I made, they got elevated to the next level,” Hurd said last week. “You walk around with eyes behind your head because you don’t know what’s going to happen next.
“It made my life hell.”
Taylor-Riley's report led Mayor Chris Beutler to remove all disciplinary actions against Hurd from his file in November. He also approved Public Safety Director Tom Casady’s plan to address issues at LFR including retaliation and inconsistent discipline.
Casady also plans to create a task force to examine and perhaps overhaul the department’s training academy.
'Water under bridge,' chief says
In summer 2012, Hurd indicated in an annual employee survey that he had witnessed discrimination and had been victim to retaliation for reporting it. That triggered Taylor-Riley's investigation.
A month or two later, Hurd filed a discrimination complaint with the state Equal Opportunity Commission. Investigators there found no reasonable cause to take action, but Hurd's complaint preceded several retaliatory acts that would become part his complaint to the city.
Disciplining someone because they’ve filed a retaliation complaint violates state law.
Taylor-Riley suspended her investigation for about a year, waiting for the state Equal Opportunity Commission to rule on Hurd’s case. She resumed when Hurd complained about more retaliation that wouldn’t have been part of the complaint before the state.
Huff said he’s not sure Taylor-Riley’s report is accurate, but also said he wouldn’t argue with her findings.
“That’s water under the bridge,” Huff said Thursday. “The important thing here is we learn from our mistakes and we correct the behaviors."
All of the chiefs who retaliated against Hurd still work for the department, and Huff said he has not and will not discipline any of them because it happened too long ago.
“Discipline, in order for it to be effective, has to be timely. It can’t be years later.”
Casady said he worried that giving both sides the chance to say what happened, then giving them a chance to rebut one another and Taylor-Riley's findings would spiral into a back-and-forth that would make it difficult to figure out the truth, especially since some of the events happened years ago, he said.
Instead, he said, he chose to focus on the future.
The mayor agreed with Casady’s approach, chief of staff Rick Hoppe said.
"LFR command is well aware that the mayor’s office, the public safety director, and the fire chief are all closely watching to ensure that (Hurd) is being treated fairly and that his employment rights are respected," he said.
The training problem
Hurd's ordeal started in fall 2011, when he watched other trainers yell, mislead, fail to supervise and accuse several recruits of snitching, Taylor-Riley said in her two-page report summary.
City Attorney Jeff Kirkpatrick declined to release the full 64-page report, providing the summary instead. He said Taylor-Riley reviewed more than 100 documents and interviewed more than 60 people, promising some of them confidentiality. Releasing the full report would identify them and compromise the city's ability to conduct investigations in the future.
According to the summary, Hurd also saw trainers single out one recruit, cursing at her and calling her “golden child.”
“It’s my duty as a supervisor in the city of Lincoln," Hurd said. "Under the mayor’s direction, I have to report things that I see that are wrong. I had the duty to report it.”
That recruit was fired before graduating because she couldn’t do the job, and she eventually became a Lincoln police officer, city Personnel Director Doug McDaniel said.
The former recruit declined to talk about what happened.
Taylor-Riley mentions more than one LFR trainer in her report, but Casady said only one was a problem.
In a November memo to the mayor Casady called that trainer’s actions “disturbing,” but he also told Beutler he believes many of the problems have been fixed since 2011.
Casady reiterated that point in a Monday interview also attended by McDaniel, Kirkpatrick and Rick Hoppe, saying that teaching recruits to be firefighters and paramedics should look like a teacher-student relationship, not like soldiers slogging through basic training.
“We’ve dealt with instructor failures, with the ‘I’m your drill sergeant. I’m your daddy' behavior,” Casady said.
Hurd reported problems with the trainers to one of LFR’s two division chiefs who, along with six battalion chiefs, make up the department’s main administrative corps, Taylor-Riley wrote. The division chief relayed those concerns to a battalion chief, and Hurd eventually outlined what he saw to a second battalion chief, the one who oversees the department's human resources issues.
On Monday, Casady said the trainer’s superiors investigated Hurd’s allegations, disciplined the trainer and would have pulled him out of the academy if he hadn’t been finishing his stint there already.
Casady declined to say how the trainer was punished, calling it a personnel issue. He did say the trainer wasn’t fired or demoted.
In her summary, Taylor-Riley said retaliation began two months after Hurd gave a nine-page list of his concerns to Battalion Chief Jeanne Pashalek in January 2012.
“This discipline was the direct result of (Hurd) voicing his concerns,” she wrote.
Taylor-Riley summed up the retaliation in her summary as follows.
* March 2012: Written reprimand for leaving a meeting without permission although he wasn't ordered to attend or stay at the meeting.
* August 2012: Verbal warning and employee incident report for damaging a fire engine.
* July 2013: Written reprimand for logbook error, even though he had no prior discipline for such a mistake.
* March 2014: Unspecified discipline for making a logbook error while trying to fix another firefighter's error.
* April 2014: Precluded from temporary assignment as a battalion chief.
The chief who disciplined Hurd in July 2013 was Assistant Chief Pat Borer, according to a signed document Hurd gave to Taylor-Riley that was obtained by the Journal Star. Another firefighter who was with Hurd and Borer also signed Hurd’s version of what happened.
As he doled out the discipline, Borer admitted he was punishing Hurd more severely because he filed a retaliation complaint with the state, Hurd and the other firefighter said in the signed document.
Borer declined to comment, saying it would be inappropriate to talk about a personnel issue.
After being denied the temporary promotion from captain to fill-in battalion chief that comes with a 10 percent pay bump, Hurd filed a grievance through the firefighters’ union, saying he lost about $4,000 in pay. City officials contend he missed out on a fraction of that, and the two sides are in arbitration to settle the dispute.
The firefighters union declined to talk about Hurd’s case, but Lincoln Firefighters Association President Ron Trouba said the union takes the rights of its members “very seriously.”
“In any case where those rights may have been violated, we want to see that appropriate remedial measures are taken and that the employee is made whole for any adverse consequences they have suffered. We will continue to work for our members in protecting these rights," Trouba said in an email.
Casady said he ordered Huff, Borer and eight other chiefs to attend a two-hour seminar last month on the subject of retaliating against firefighters who work under them.
The city's public safety director said he also plans to create a task force in the next six months to see if the department’s training academy needs to be overhauled. A battalion chief -- not one accused of retaliating against Hurd -- will chair the five-member task force that will include LFR employees of different ranks and at least one person from outside the department.
He also plans to overhaul how supervisors dole out discipline.
“Inconsistent discipline has been an ongoing problem and frustration,” Casady wrote in the November memo to Beutler.
Last week, Casady said he has created a database that lets supervisors track discipline. It’s part of a bigger plan to make sure supervisors are giving the same punishment for the same kinds of behavior.
“My focus has been on fixing this and making it better,” Casady said Monday.
Hurd said he thinks city officials wiped his disciplinary file clean so he'll be quiet. In fact, he thinks he should have been punished for making one of the logbook mistakes.
“I’m not satisfied,” he said last week. “I told (Casady) I wasn’t happy about it."
Hurd said he wants the chiefs who retaliated against him to be suspended or fired, that the people charged with making the system work need to be held accountable.
"When it's corrupt at the top, it's going to be corrupt at the bottom," he said. "If you fix things at the top, everything else will work itself out.
"That's how the rest of us are going to correct our mistakes."
The 15-year veteran is still a captain and occasionally works as an acting battalion chief at the 10 percent extra pay rate, but he said he still worries the higher-ups will continue to come after him.
“Right is right, and wrong is wrong. They look down at me when I go to these (chiefs’) meetings. They have that hate in the back of their heads.
“I don’t care. I’m still in their faces, and I’m not going anywhere.”