D.C. fire chief never fully vet­ted

Ellerbe had sex-ha­rass­ment com­plaints in Sara­sota post

The Washington Times Daily - - Front Page - BY AN­DREA NO­BLE AND MATTHEW CELLA

D.C. 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 obt a i n e d 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.”

‘Talks to my chest’

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 Chief Robin­son “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.

Four in­ci­dents

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.” D.C. Fire Chief Ken­neth Ellerbe’s per­son­nel file from his time as chief in Sara­sota, Fla., con­tained a com­plaint of sex­ual ha­rass­ment sup­ported by state­ments at­test­ing to in­ap­pro­pri­ate be­hav­ior and in­tim­i­da­tion. One state­ment doc­u­ments a meet­ing in which Chief Ellerbe, iden­ti­fied

as “he,” re­sponds to the con­cerns.

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-to­face 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.

Falsely ac­cused?

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.

Per­son­nel-ex­change agree­ment

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.”

The tran­si­tion

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.”

ROD LAMKEY JR./THE WASHINGTON TIMES

D.C. VETERAN: Fire Chief Ken­neth B. Ellerbe served 27 years in the D.C. Fire and Emer­gency Med­i­cal Ser­vices Depart­ment dur­ing his first tour of duty in the Dis­trict, be­fore leav­ing for Sara­sota, Fla.

WARD MATES: D.C. Mayor Vin­cent C. Gray had long­stand­ing ties to the fire chief.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Vin­cent C. Gray (left), then D.C. mayor-elect, lis­tens on Dec. 16, 2010, as his nom­i­nee for fire chief, Ken­neth B. Ellerbe, fields a ques­tion at a news con­fer­ence. Some say the city should have con­ducted a na­tional search to fill the post.

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