New Haven Firefighter Terminated for Bribing Witnesses is Reinstated by Freedom of Information Commission

The headline is accurate. I had to check it twice myself to be sure I had it right… but it is. New Haven firefighter Aaron Brantley has been reinstated to the fire department following a ruling by the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission.

While one might not immediately grasp the connection between an employee’s disciplinary termination and a freedom of information issue, the truth is whenever an employee’s discipline is to be decided by a public body that itself is subject to a state’s open meetings law, the public body must comply with the open meetings law… or risk that its ruling will be overturned. In Connecticut, the FOI commission is responsible for enforcing the state’s Freedom of Information Act which includes both public/open meetings requirements as well as and public records requirements.

The complicated case began in March, 2012 when Brantley sustained a shoulder injury. He was placed on light duty but complained that he was required to do menial tasks because he was black. Brantley then filed a complaint with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities alleging race discrimination. During the course of the case he was accused of trying to bribe two coworkers resulting in criminal charges being brought.

Last year Brantley was convicted on one count of attempting to bribe a witness and sentenced to one year in prison. That ruling is currently being appealed and the sentence has been stayed while the appeal is pending.

The conviction prompted the City of New Haven’s Board of Fire Commissioners to terminate his employment on June 2, 2014. Brantley challenged the ruling arguing that Board of Fire Commissioners failed to follow the state’s open meetings requirements. In particular he claimed the board:

  • Improperly went into executive session to discuss his case without stating the reason on the record as required by the FOI Act
  • Decided his case in executive session when the law required the decision be made in public.

The FOI Commission agreed, concluding on May 13, 2015 that:

“The vote held by the respondent Board at its June 2, 2014 meeting to terminate complainant Aaron Brantley from his employment in the New Haven Fire Department is declared null and void.”

The board also noted:

  • “at the time of his termination, complainant Brantley had a civil action pending at the Commission of Human Rights and Opportunity (“CHRO”).
  • Moreover, as of complainant Brantley’s termination date, Assistant Fire Chief Patrick Egan was also on administrative leave with pay pending the outcome of two investigations commissioned by the City of New Haven (one by attorney Martin Philpot and the second by attorney Steven Mednick) concerning allegations of harassment and discrimination against firefighters who had been injured.
  • At the FOIC hearing, James Kottage, President of the complainant Firefighters Local, testified that Assistant Fire Chief Egan had harassed complainant Brantley. Complainant Brantley is African-American..”

According to the New Haven Register, Brantley was schedule to return to work today. New Haven Fire Chief Allyn Wright was quoted as saying “Firefighter Brantley’s return to duty will help address ongoing manpower issues within the New Haven Fire Department. I’ll work to ensure his smooth, prompt transition back to full-time status.”

No word on what happens if Brantley loses his appeal and has to serve his prison sentence.

Here is a copy of the FOI ruling: FOI: FIC2014-343

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.
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