The Discipline Debacle in DC

It is almost beyond belief, even for someone who lectures regularly on the subject of “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up”. A fire chief, Kenneth Ellerbe, disciplining two chief officers who serve as hearing officers – administrative fact finders – because the fire chief feels they did not properly issue the correct “recommendation” to him in two disciplinary cases arising out of the same incident… Really?

Rather than rewrite the facts of the cases – Here are some links to the various stories – the Washington Times article does a great job of summarizing the facts.

 

While the facts are complicated and convoluted – one battalion chief, Richard Sterne, was demoted to captain because he “recommended” issuing reprimands to two firefighters instead of the 24 hour suspensions the chief sought, and another battalion chief, Kevin Sloan, was transferred from a line position to a desk job in supply because he recommended a finding of not guilty for a lieutenant.

Here is the bottom line: In DC the fire chief is the final decision maker on matters of discipline. If the fire chief does not like recommendations that his subordinate chiefs give him, he should IGNORE THEM. He is the fire chief and that is his prerogative to overrule their decisions by issuing what ever punishment he believes is warranted.

But to punish fact finders for disagreeing with him? What message does that send? Perhaps the chief “thinks” it sends a message that “my chiefs need to get tough”…. Unfortunately the message that is being sent is – If the chief thinks someone is guilty, best agree with him or else you will be next. That is just plan wrong. That is bullying, plain and simple. Why bother with the farce of even having a chief officer issue a disciplinary recommendation if the fire chief has already pre-determined how it should come out? And by the way… due process means an accused has the right to a neutral decisionmaker… how exactly does the DC Fire & EMS provide that given the present circumstances?

And perhaps the real question – has Chief Ellerbe finally imploded? Will this discipline debacle be the straw that finally breaks the camel’s back?

Dave Statter has some more info on this case.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
  • Chris

    I am curious if as a member of the organization, would it be safe to assume that future trial boards may not be fair and balanced based on the actions of this administrator. If so, would a member have the courts support if they feel the punishment was too harsh for the infraction? I think the pattern that has been set, may lead to future trial boards to be heavy handed in dealing out punishments for fear of similar bullying, demoting and re-assigning.

  • …….

    In DCFD the fire chief can accept the recomendation, reduce the penalty, dismiss all charges but he can never increase the recomended penalty.

  • DCFiremanRetd

    I have been retired for many years BUT I believe the union contract states that the fire chief MAY NOT increase the penalties recommended by the fact finders. He can accept the penalty, reduce it or dismiss it but he cannot increase it. Therefore to get his retaliation as he is vindictive nature requires, he must go after the officers.

  • DCFD LT

    Let’s hope so!!!

  • Thank you all for the details. I was not aware the DC Chief could not increase the recommended penalty – but even still – you cannot expect subordinate officers to exercise discretion fairly and neutrally – if you spank them for the way they exercise that discretion.

    • Matt Leonard

      Sure you can. If fact finders cannot find relevant information that dictates the necessity of punitive action and a vindictive Chief wants to see exactly that, then fair subordinates will continue to be reduced in rank, transferred to undesirable positions, or forced to retire because they find the actions of firefighters and line officers acceptable. Ethically responsible chiefs will make decisions as such dependent on facts and the written orders.

  • Another LT

    Depending on the accused infraction, members receive a Battalion Fire Chief’s Conference (up to 72h suspension) a Deputy Fire Chief’s conference (up to 120h suspension) or a Fire Trial Board (up to and including termination). The accused can always choose a trial board. The results of these are forwarded to the FC for disposition, he can not increase them. Final appeals is to the DC Board of Employee Appeals, and then, of course, the court system.

  • Kenneth Ellerbe

    Mr. Varone,

    As an attorney, I’m sure that you understand the sensitivity of personnel actions being played out in the media. There is much more to both of the issues that you refer to, which is not ready for public consumption. I would think that as a former chief and an attorney you would be less influenced by statements made in the media. Every employee has appeal rights if they feel that they have been treated improperly. The most appropriate time for all of the facts to be discussed publicly, in any personnel matter, would be after their appeals have been heard and a verdict rendered. For me, as Chief to share any facts beforehand would be unfair to the employee, in my opinion. Consequently, I’m at a loss regarding any defense of the circumstances, especially in a blog. I’m sure that you and other logical readers can appreciate my position.

    • Chief

      Thank you very much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to respond here. I understand there are always two sides to every story – and I do my best to try to think through both sides before I post.

      I cannot imagine a more difficult job in the fire service today than the one you currently hold. The enormity of the challenges facing DC Fire is truly daunting.

      Having said that – I am sure you can appreciate the vital importance of appearances. Often the appearance of an impropriety is as big a concern as an actual impropriety. The concern that prompted my posting was not based upon questionable “statements made in the media”. The concern was/is about the appearance that is associated with the punishment that you undisputedly imposed on two chief officers who served as impartial fact-finders/hearing officers after they rendered a decision you consider to be wrong. If you did not punish those two men – then I will stand corrected.

      Now – as for whether they deserved to be punished – you are absolutely 100% correct. Folks should withhold judgment until all the facts are in. Perhaps their punishment was justified. I say let the truth shine in – for good or for bad. However, my post was not about whether they deserved to be punished or not, because I do not know whether they deserved to be punished or not.

      My concern was and is about the “message” being sent – the terrible appearance of impropriety that is created when two supposedly impartial decision makers are punished for making a decision that was within their discretion. It would be akin to demoting or issuing a punitive transfer to a judge for an unpopular decision. Maybe the judge was wrong – dead wrong – but at the same time you cannot expect a judge to be impartial AND worried about the consequences of his/her decision. The two are mutually exclusive. The fact that two judges were punished in such a fashion would send a very clear and very chilling message to other judges… a message that is inconsistent with due process.

      You are no doubt an intelligent man. Surely you can comprehend the potential damage that an appearance of impropriety can have in a situation like this. I am sure you had justification for your decisions – what I am not so sure of is whether you considered the chilling implications that your decisions would have.

    • mark

      Well, Chief (using the term loosely) why then did YOU call the media to report about the beer found in the station? And the entire house being closed until everyone was tested?

      Isn’t this a personnel matter that shouldn’t have been played out in the media?

      Logic would mean none of this had to become public, as most personnel matters do not.

      Logic would mean you let your chiefs do the work you entrust them with and not micro-manage.

      Logic would mean you wouldn’t let 70-some-thousand-dollars worth of uniforms sit in a warehouse because you decided to change the name of the FIRE DEPARTMENT.

      Good luck with your form of logic, Chief.

  • Nate P

    In my opinion Ellerbe is just like his boy Gray (the Mayor)… SHADY! They both have a racist track record, Ellerbe has made it clear with his policies and actions that he really only wants people from DC to be working in DC. He is exactly whats wrong with the fire service today!

  • DCFiremanRetd

    You are right, Curt Varone. The discipline system has been corrupted by Ellerbe and until he is gone, nobody will ever be treated fairly or, they will never be able to have confidence the system works. And, that goes both ways. There is a Lt. on the job about to stand trial for criminal burglary charges and who should have been placed on leave back in January after the incident and stayed on leave until the case was settled but this chief cannot stand to see one of his “stars” as he called them in an interview, lose their “shine” so he covered it up until it leaked out the other day.

    Punishing two chiefs whose exercised their authority properly while covering up a burglary charge for one of his “stars” shows how low this man will stoop to protect his own.

  • Just Me

    Ok I have to stop this now. I am a DC firefighter who is not an all out fan of Chief Ellerbe but this article is Smut. Within this one article Curt Varone is able to sum up his own career and we clearly see you have friends in DC that feel they have been wronged. I am not defending anyone in DC and I feel that outsiders have a right to their opinion, but your friends in DC know just how to play you with no history and no facts then you blog.
    I say this sums up your career because one big thing as a Chief officer you did not do is investigate or you left it out on purpose. I have nothing to do with this case in DC, but I do know that we have a history of Fire Officials who sit on the panels for fire trail boards that are being corrupt. I do know that is one thing Chief Ellerbe is stoping, also I do know that a lot of firefighter benefit from this corrupt system. For years in DC it was the opposite firefighters were facing termination and suspensions for very minor offenses and our past Fire Chief Dennis Rubin took that corruption to another level.
    I can go on and I know the truth is hard to sallow, but I suggest a big cup of water for those who can’t. I’m going to leave it at this, those fire department members broke the rules and regulation on excepting alcohol as gifts from a citizen. The Fire Officials didn’t want to do anything about because of friendship or loyalty just went down on a sinking ship with them.

    Oh yeah I forgot to mention Curt the best way to give your titles some “weight” is to really be a professional and stop blogging nonsense. Firefighter everywhere face real challenges….this “ain’t” one of the.

    • almost over

      Spoken like someone on their way out the door.

    • Just Me says

      I am a bit confused by several of your statements… I mean I get the part that you are insulting me – that part comes through loud and clear – but beyond that I am not sure what you mean about summing up my own career, or my friends in DC (I don’t think I could name 2 DC firefighters if my life depended on it), or that I am being played by my friends, or that I never investigated anything. Is that all you got?

      My concern is not about whether the 2 chiefs who were disciplined – deserved to be disciplined. It is not about whether Chief Ellerbe was “right”, or if his administration was more corrupt than previous administrations.

      My concern is alot simplier: what message did the Chief send when he disciplined the 2 chiefs (justified or not). As an attorney – who believes in the rule of law – punishing impartial fact-finders for their decisions offends my sense of justice. It is about as big an outrage as can occur in our system of jurisprudence. Having said that – the Chief may have been justified – perhaps the facts will bear him out – but the message that was sent by his actions is certain to have a chilling effect on future impartial fact-finders.

      When you add this debacle to the previous string of headlines surrounding Chief Ellerbe – you have to wonder when the mayor is going to say enough is enough.

  • almost over

    If the discipline debacle doesnt rid us of this idiot the fact that he has been caught burning personnel files, I mean “someone” with access to employees files burned them at the training academy last weekend, should land him in jail with his mentor Vincent.

  • Anon

    Chief Ellerbe okd and supported a party held at the fire boat a week ago that included tons of alcohol. When the members there objected to folks offloading their booze on premise they were told to keep their mouth shut, that it was a Coast Guard function. So I don’t think it’s about the alcohol.

  • HOOKMAN

    Mr. Varone….i agree with you 100%….Trial Boards in the DC FIRE DEPT are a 50/50 crap shoot because there is no impartial or unbiased decision maker to render a fair decision. The implications are many and more times than none, the person facing the trial board suffers greatly. I can speak firsthand of this, because I faced a trial board when former Chief Out Of Town aka Dennis Rubin was the Chief. While this clown was out using his title for personal gain, he let his AFC of Ops and the AFC of retaliation do the dirty work…If you weren’t one of the boys, you were going to be in trouble. The disparity of discipline was obvious, but these clowns rode off into the sunset…

    Though I could go into more detail about the previous administration, I will not continue to bore you, as they will reap what they sow if they haven’t already…

    Which brings us to our present leader who vowed transparency and fairness across the board…Level playing field for all…With the obvious vindictiveness towards members, which is shown in the previous 2 trial boards, where is the transparency and fairness here….Trial Boards are in place to handout penalties, terminate an employee or in Chief Sloan’s case, render an employee not guilty of said charges. I can say I’ve never heard one bad word about Chief Sloan nor have I ever heard of him treating someone unfairly because he didn’t like them. This whole incident about beer in the fridge at Engine 9 is beyond petty. Are we to say the day Chief Ellerbe walked into the quarters of Engine 9, he was there because he was invited in for a meal. No, he arrived there because one of the snitches there informed him of the beer, so rather than be a MAN and say this doesn’t belong here, lets put it in someone’s car or something to get rid of it inside the firehouse….No, we need to make a World War over something petty…This is why things such as this are most of the time handled at the company level and if you have good officers that lookout for the members, they will squash something as petty as this….One would think the Chief of the Nations Capital has busier things to do then to walk into a firehouse out of nowhere and finds beer in a refrigerator…this goes to show that not only is that kind of behavior disturbing, but that his agenda is anything but for the good of the department.

    So now we have the breaking news story of a Lt. who was on the news for stealing hay…yeah, hay….is now facing 2nd degree burgulary charges for it and is just now being placed on administrative leave when this happened at the end of April. How ironic that this incident was posted on http://www.thewatchdesk.com and next thing you know its on the news….Now we have another Lt. who will be facing a trial board for wearing a jacket at the training academy, that had DCFD on it and only because he was cold and apparently refused to take it off and was sent home….So with the previous mentioned trial boards and the influence Chief Ellerbe had on them because they were both tied into the same incident, what kind of outcome do you think this Lt. will receive versus the Lt. who stole hay…transparent and fairness for all…what a crock of BS and I’m disgusted to see that a man who was given the job on a silver platter, has dropped it and has set a course of destruction that only the members will suffer for…Whether Vince gets canned soon or what have you, we the members suffer for what an incompetent vindictive leader has left behind…and for the record, neither Rubin or Ellerbe are even close to examples of what transparency and fairness are all about….

  • DCFiremanRetd

    And along with the burning of personnel files including HIPPA protected medical records of his members, a Lt has stayed on the job since January while facing 2nd degree burglary charges (made the headlines this evening) and only put her on admin leave today when his nemesis made it public on a The Watch Desk. Either she did not report it to her officer as required or she did and they, in total disregard for public safety, allowed her to continue in her position which is a blatant violation of public trust.

    Now, the rumor is that a couple of his beloved cadets were arrested last week for shoplifting. Covering that up, too?

    The IG found another man to be involved in some sort of unsavory behavior but he did not punish him – he is an Ellerbe Star and his shine was not going to be tarnished regardless of what illicit, illegal or immoral behavior he was involved in. Don’t know what it was but the report is public if anyone is interested in reading it.

    He has a history of making punitive transfers and when he was the acting chief back in the late 90’s or early 2000s, he vindictively transferred dozens of people each of whom he had a vendetta against. The ACLU stepped in and and had it reversed. He comes back here this time and involuntarily transfers a young firefighter he had a run in with a few years ago (he never forgets) and the kid grieved it and won but because Ellerbe insisted on a non-discosure phrase, the guy can’t talk about it. He was sent back to his company so the outcome is obvious. Then Ellerbe puts out notice that department policy has changed and he authorized himself to transfer anyone, anywhere, anytime; his cover for f’ing with people. Any manager worth his salt knows you don’t break up teams of firefighters who are comfortable with each other, drill together and know what each other is going to do and how they will do it. Those changes should ONLY happen when absolutely necessary or when an officer needs experience in different departments for advancement. Ellerbe even told people in Sarasota he was vindictive.

    How long did he actually fight fires? Might have lots’o book learning but he ain’t no fireman.

    He was accused of sexual harassment in FL but when according to Ellerbe himself, he threatened to sue, the complaint never materialized.” (See Washington Times)

    He has harassment allegations against him now which are being investigated and had claims made against him several years before he left. Chief, why don’t you tell everyone what the outcome of those accusations were? Nothing in your personnel file? Of course not – it was likely removed or burned in a dumpster. What you forget is that there is an institutional memory, Chief, and lots of us old guys no where the skeletons are and they are starting to open their closet doors. BOO!

    I’m thankful my father, who joined the department in 1949 is no longer around to see what Ellerbe has done to his department and thankfully my brother and I are both long retired so there is nobody left in my family to have to deal with this imbecile. My daughter toyed with the idea of taking the exam a few years ago and with each new story I read, I cannot begin to say how grateful I am that she just stayed in school. It would have been pretty cool to have a kid on the job….my dad sure was proud of it.

  • DCFiremanRetd

    And Ellerbe, you would do well to listen to Attorney Varone’s advice. He has a far superior reputation to those on your staff who call themselves lawyers.

  • HOOKMAN

    Well put DCfiremanRetd…….

  • DCFiremanRetd

    A couple detail, Hookman.

    Remember, it was Kenneth Ellerbe who called the media outlet(s) to notify them that there was beer in a firehouse refrigerator – a disgusting display of his self-described vindictiveness. Not only did he and his snitch seek to entrap the members but he also sought to destroy the reputation of his department. Any other real man (or woman) would have dealt with it addressing the media only if and when it leaked.

    And secondly, the incident of 2nd agree burglary happened in January but the trial summons was issued in April.

    The alleged incident of cadet thievery from a Best Buy, supposedly while in DCFD uniforms, was in the last couple weeks.

    The IG report outlining the misdeeds of Ellerbe’s friend on the department was released in January but he started NO disciplinary proceedings against him.

    There are more skeletons in his closet and like I said before, the institutional memory, Kenneth, still exists. If the two ladies who are still on the department (civilians) come out and tell their stories, you are done. Even if you have sufficiently silenced them, you are still a failure as a chief and as a man.

    Real men respect women and do not seek to injure, harass or control them in any way.

  • We’ll how about the E-8-3 Lt. involved in a brutal assault of his girlfriend on Rhoad Island Ave. I’m sure he never reported it, even though the 1st BFC and Internal Affairs investigated it.And yes he’s one of those shinning stars still working. The Hay incident did happen in Jan while on (POD)injury leave…..i believe that’s theft by disception and fraud wonder if the department will file charges on that I think not. The Lt. having his trial board nover would have happened if the female”fitness” instructor at the TA didn’t run in and tell the TA BFC, oh and by the way she doesn’t really like the Lt. from time spent at the TA because she was ineffective at her job, but when your the wife(former)of a DFC you get your way. Chief Wynn never leaves his office and wouldn’t even notice the jacket if it wasn’t push under his nose…..that’s why he not in firefighting. All in all Ellerbe is a racist and will do anything to change the demographics of the department.He is vendictive and if you want proof just look at the numerous transfer list he put out and who he has moved, Demographics paint a true picture!

  • FloridaChief

    I think the entire episode is ridiculous. The issue at hand is the beer being in the fire station and I certainly do not condone this act. The firefighters did the right thing by declining the beer. Yet the resident left if and walked away. Instead of putting it in someone’s vehicle it ended up in the fridge. That is where it all went downhill. However, I wonder what would have happened if one of the firefighters had discretely put the beer in a personal vehicle and Ellerbe had found out about that? Technically even picking it up to throw it away makes you “in possession of alocholic beverages”. Of course they could have left it and I am sure somone passing down the street would have picked it up. Bottom line is that Chief Sterne reviewed the issues, considered the facts and handed down a fair and appropriate punishment in my opinion. It is painfully apparent that Chief Ellerbe was expecting a harsh punishment so he punished Chief Sterne for not doing his (ellerbe’s) bidding. I have known Chief Sterne for a long time and know him to be well educated, dedicated, professional and fair. Then Chief Sloan handles another situation similarly and is “not punished” but yet a seasoned incident commander is moved to a desk job in logistics? This entire thing looks bad, sounds bad and certainly smells bad.

  • after watching Chief Stern and Chief Sloan on the news last night I believe LRB should be at logistics that way he can dispense all the toilet paper to take care of the crap he puts out, however I don’t think there’s enough. Truely the man lies so much he believes it……City council wake up how much dirt does he have to stir up before you see he’s not the person to be leading this department!!!!

  • xray

    where was all the venom and uproar when rubin and shultz were discriminatory,unfair,etc.. Maybe one or two I can think of who blasted the last administration.But the rest of you were dorment,hybernating or just plain thought the dept was fine. Did transfers for so called retaliation just start with the new chief?. What about morale?, I hear members say its the lowest.In all fairness I think depending on who you talk to you will find that morale was low with the last admin.Surely your not going to find a chief no where who is goin to appeal to everyone all the time.When you incorporate the human factor in any business, whether fire service or anyother organization your gonna have disputes on what is fair and just. If a member has a problem with the direction the department is going, why not use your resources to address the matter. Hell the new chief even had an open door policy for members to address there concerns.(did anyone show not hardly).There is nothing wrong if you dont agree with the chief, but the head of the administration doesnt follow his members its the other way around.All the disrespectful rhetoric on here and the infamous watch desk has gotta stop.Do you think its going to make it better by lashing out that way.It’s adding more fuel to a volatile situation.We need to show a little more decorum and respect to a sitting chief regardless of who he is.We are just showing outsiders how childish and unprofessional we are as a department with our actions. We need to conduct ourselves more professional even on these sites the nation is watching.thats my spill on the situation.

  • Bucky

    Mr.xray, there was plenty of venom around with the last Chief, but know where as much as with this one.The last administration may have picked on a few but never bullied people because of where they lived or what they wrote on TWD or because they made a right decision that he didn’t like.The moral of the department has never been this low in the past 23 years I have been around. Maybe if you got out of your comfort zone and talked with the other members of the department, and not the ones in the little suck ass circle you and a hand full of other LRB worshipers are in you could get in touch with reality. Why should we not lash out and be disrespectful on here and TWD, we are disrespected every day by the man who is suppose to be leading us? You just keep on shining their star, his days are numbered and you will come crashing to earth with the rest of the shining stars when this disrespectful bully is gone!!!!!

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