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Petaluma Fire Department employee leaves amid sex scandal

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An employee has resigned from Petaluma’s fire department and others are set to be disciplined after an investigation prompted by an anonymous letter that detailed alleged sexual misconduct involving fire personnel at the agency’s downtown headquarters.

The unsigned letter, which was sent to the city manager and the fire chief in late December, alleges that a six-month long spate of “gross misconduct” took place at Petaluma Fire Department Station 1 on D Street. The letter states that young personnel brought in a Petaluma woman in her early 20s during the late night and early morning hours for strip teases and sex acts, some of which occurred on or in fire apparatus.

It alleges that photos taken and disseminated among staff depict the woman in “various states of undress,” in the station, sometimes clad solely in Petaluma Fire Department gear. The woman also allegedly stated that the “red light is on” at her Petaluma home, according to the letter.

City Manager John Brown and Fire Chief Leonard Thompson declined to confirm if their investigation determined sex acts took place at the station.

Details scarce

Brown said there was no information to show that lap dances, strip teases or other “group activity” had taken place.

City Attorney Eric Danly said he advised the city manager against providing further information until a post-investigation report could be completed by staff. Danly said he believed the report would be finalized and submitted “soon.”

Citing personnel confidentiality statues, Brown, Thompson and Danly declined to provide details about the employee who left the city, including a name, reasons provided for the departure, length of service, or rank. According to the city’s departmental reports, a firefighter/paramedic resigned from the city in January.

There were “multiple” incidents of policy violations, such as unauthorized after-hours access to the station, Brown said, though he declined to specify how many.

Thompson disputed many of the claims in the letter, saying that “90 percent” of it is “wrong.” He would not provide any clarity about what was correct other than to say that “one egregious thing was found.”

Brown said that, the day after he received the letter, he sat down with the fire chief to map out a strategy for an investigation into the merits of the allegations. Two battalion chiefs conducted the investigation over the course of several weeks, when they interviewed about 30 employees at fire stations 1 and 2, Thompson said.

The city’s legal and human resources team helped fire personnel in the initial investigation, and staff from those departments reviewed the preliminary results to follow up with individuals and potentially take additional action, Brown said. The process was completed before the end of January.

“What we turned up in the course of all this was that there was an individual who was involved with the young woman at the facility,” Brown said. “I’m not certain that we came up with any actual evidence showing that they had been on or in city equipment, but there was clearly inappropriate behavior. I don’t really want to elaborate on that other than to indicate that there was behavior going on that was in violation of the department policies about having people in, access to equipment and vehicles or uniforms. … The individual involved no longer works for the city at this point and I guess that’s as far as I want to go.”

The investigation didn’t show that any other individuals were directly involved, Brown said, but added that they may have “seen a photograph” or “heard something” and would have been expected to report to a supervisor.

“It appears to be limited to the one individual,” Brown said. “Where other people’s culpability comes in is in knowing something was going on and not stepping forward to report it. You have direct involvement and you have some indirect knowledge and there’s a group of individuals who we will take appropriate action against ... pending all of their proper notification, representation and due process.”

The letter was the first time Brown, Thompson or any battalion chiefs heard about any workplace issues, Brown and Thompson said. The identity of the whistle blower is still unclear.

Thompson said the vacancy created by the resignation has not yet been filled. The city is currently recruiting for a firefighter/paramedic, a full-time position that pays between $81,783.60 to $99,390 annually, according to information on a job board linked to from the city’s website.

Brown, Danly and Thompson also declined to provide any details about those who are to be disciplined, including specifics about punitive measures. Thompson said that “probably two” employees would be disciplined because they “broke the rules,” but he declined to say if those actions were related to the letter. Late Tuesday, Danly said that no “discipline has been noticed or implemented.”

A woman was named in the letter, though Brown and Thompson said she had not been contacted to substantiate the allegations about her involvement during the course of the investigation. The woman could not be reached for comment this week, though during a phone call with the Argus-Courier in January she denied any involvement and said she would be retaining a lawyer.

Brown and Thompson were unable to provide any details about the nature of the relationship between the young woman and the staff member who resigned from the department. Brown said there is no reason to believe money was exchanged during the course of the misconduct or that the woman was a victim.

No related lawsuits have been filed and no criminal activity was found to have taken place, Brown said.

Women on the front lines

The investigation comes on the heels of a $1.25 million settlement in a lawsuit brought forth by the city’s second-ever female firefighter, who allegedly experienced a pervasive pattern of sexual harassment and discrimination when she worked at the Petaluma Fire Department from 2008 until her 2014 resignation. That marked the largest settlement the city reached in an employee-related case in more than a decade, Danly said in January 2017, a month after the case was settled.

The department currently employs two female fire inspectors and one female fire marshal, though there are no women working as firefighters or paramedics, Thompson said. He hopes the department will attract more female candidates in the future.

Modifications to facilities to bolster gender inclusivity and ADA access at stations 2 and 3 are underway, Thompson said. There will be no other changes to the department or its hiring practices prompted by the investigation, he said.

“We have a great culture here,” said Thompson, who has led the department since 2015. “We’re open and diverse and we’ll continue to be that way. We won’t tolerate anyone breaking the city’s or the fire department’s policies or procedures.”

Moving forward

Brown said it may be impossible to prevent such covert after-hours activity in the city’s firehouses. The fire chief and battalion chiefs aren’t at the station after-hours, and the captain in charge and fellow employees may be sleeping, he said. Thompson said the misconduct could have taken place because “somebody wasn’t paying attention.” The station does not have security cameras to track activity, Thompson said.

“I don’t know that you can honestly prevent something like this from happening if a person is really just adamant about doing it … Unfortunately we are a resourceful species and we find ways to actuate what we want to do and I just don’t know how you build a failsafe into that,” Brown said, underscoring his support for Thompson’s leadership.

Ken Dick, a Petaluma Fire Department Engineer who is the president of the Petaluma Firefighters Local 1415, the union that represents city firefighters, declined to comment on what he described as an ongoing investigation.

Councilman Chris Albertson, the city’s former fire chief, declined to comment on the matter, citing personnel confidentiality issues and a lack of familiarity with the details of the investigation.

City Councilwoman Kathy Miller also said she could not comment on a personnel issue. Unrelated to the investigation, she said she would like to see more women working in the department.

The scandal comes as the city is conducting outreach for a potential sales tax measure on the November ballot, an increase that’s billed as way to boost the ailing budgets of public safety agencies, including the fire department. Miller said residents should support such a measure.

“I think it’s absolutely something that people should support,” she said. “It is an investigation that has been conducted and it’s been resolved and it doesn’t eliminate the need for additional funding for public safety.”

Brown echoed the sentiment.

“We don’t believe this is representative of the culture of the fire department, this is one individual’s poor judgment, and that one individual’s poor judgment or behavior should not be held against the remainder of the department who are really dedicated people trying to do really difficult jobs with not a lot of resources,” he said.

(Contact Hannah Beausang at hannah.beausang@arguscourier.com.)