Oregon Lieutenant Claims Whistleblower Retaliation

A lieutenant with the Umatilla County Fire District #1 claims that he was forced to resign in retaliation for his having reported inaccuracies in information related to the SAFER grant program. Jeremy Gillette resigned on July 13, 2023 after being threatened with termination and the loss of his state credentials.

Gillette filed suit in US District Court for the District of Oregon, naming the fire district, a private investigator, James Ferraris, and Ferraris’ investigative firm as defendants. According to the complaint, Gillette was a stellar employee with excellent reviews who was in line to be promoted to battalion chief on January 1, 2023. Quoting from the complaint:

  • In spring 2022 Gillette [was] reviewing the projections for budgeting purposes used by UCFD.
  • He noticed that the Fire Chiefs’ report was misreporting the number of non-emergency transfers that UCFD1 was taking and not taking.
  • Gillette prepared a written report and a slide presentation highlighting this discrepancy and submitted it to management of UCFD1.
  • Gillette made the presentation with the slides in April of 2022.
  • After the presentation Gillette received feedback from Richard Cearns [Chief of Training] about it saying that it was considered offensive.
  • UDFC1 used these figures in reporting to various agencies and to apply for funding such as the federal SAFER grants. Gillette concluded that these or similar inaccurate figures had been used in the past to support grant requests and other reports.
  • It is Gillette’s belief that UCFD1 had been using these false “losses” to apply for federal grants for staffing purposes.
  • After Gillette exposed these inaccurate figures UCFD1 extraordinarily failed to apply for SAFER finding in the next cycle.
  • After his reporting of the budgeting discrepancies Gillette was suddenly subjected to unfair and discriminatory criticisms.
  • He was subjected to a hostile work environment in which he was criticized unfairly and harassed in his work.
  • This treatment was discrimination and retaliation for his reporting the budgeting discrepancies.
  • After his reporting of the budgeting discrepancies and days before his promotion to Battalion Chief was to take effect on or about December 19, 2022 Gillette was called in and told he was on administrative leave but he was given no details of any accusation against him.
  • He was notified that he was being investigated for alleged “bullying” “hostile work.
  • Gillette is informed and believes and alleges thereon that UCFD1 retained the services of FERRARIS to investigate the accusations against Gillette and to make recommendations as to what actions should be taken.
  • FERRARIS eventually created a biased and false written report dated May 23, 2023 in order to justify Gillette’s termination.
  • The Report was not provided to Gillette until on or about June 30, 2023.
  • The supporting evidence such as audio recordings of witness interviews were not provided until on or about July 6, 2023.
  • The investigation was conducted in a biased, unfair, improper, and negligent manner. It was not fair or neutral and was designed as an attack to get rid of Gillette.
  • FERRARIS delayed until on or about March 4, 2023 to even speak to Gillette. At this time Gillette learned, for the first time, that the accusation involved a subordinate named Mikiah Hampton.
  • In 2022 Gillette had been responsible for supervision and evaluation of a newly hired employee, Makiah Hampton. Hampton was undergoing his probationary period.
  • Gillette counseled Hampton about problems with his performance including, without limitation, lack of professionalism, rudeness with patients and others, and poor communication skills with community members and other agencies.
  • Hampton, apparently resenting the counseling, complained to others, including his girlfriend and in so doing simply made up accusations about Gillette. These accusations were false.
  • Gillette was never unreasonable or inappropriate with Hampton or anyone else in the course of his work for UCFD1.
  • The conclusions stated in the FERRARIS report were biased and unfounded. Gillette believes that UCFD1 instructed FERRARIS to find evidence unfavorable to Gillette, to attack his character and reputation and to reach conclusions that would justify termination.
  • Gillette was not originally provided with a copy of the FERRARIS investigative report until a copy was included with the June 15, 2023 Notice that he was to be terminated.
  • The Report is a biased and one-sided attack on Gillette intended to justify termination of his employment and to block his promotion to Battalion Chief. The Report generally amounts to nothing more than repetitions of Hampton’s supposed complaints about his supervisor. None of the witnesses was in a position to corroborate the negative aspects of Hamptons version of events. No witness had direct knowledge of any physical contact between Gillette and Hampton. No witness had direct knowledge of any threat supposedly made by Gillette towards Hampton.
  • The issue comes down to contradictory statements by Hampton and Gillette as to what transpired between them.
  • As Gillette has a long and excellent history which includes no progressive discipline and no allegations of the kind raised here, his credibility would normally have been recognized and credited.
  • As a short-term probationary employee with a documented record of inappropriate interactions with others, Hampton’s version of events should not be credited.
  • Also, Hampton told several different versions of specific events he alleges which belies his credibility.
  • Gillette should not be terminated for simply counseling an employee reporting to him as he was required to do.
  • In the course of the improperly conducted investigation Defendants went so far as to attempted to recruit a former employee to participate in the investigation to attack Gillette’s credibility and character. The employee’s name is Gabe Billings.
  • This action clearly reflects a search for any possible damaging accusation against Gillette rather than an impartial investigation of specific complaints.
  • Another example of such “fishing for dirt” was that Ferraris went so far as to investigate whether Gillette threw a coffee cup at a former student named Mason Manary.
  • No one, including Mason, said that this happened.
  • At the same time the investigation deliberately and pointedly ignored information and evidence which would have cast doubt on Hamptons credibility and supported Gillette.
  • The investigative report is not neutral or unbiased. The investigator failed to consider key evidence including the disciplinary memo concerning Hampton and ignored Hampton’s performance problems in dealing with others. He did not interview witnesses identified by Gillette. He presented the testimony in slanted and biased fashion.
  • On or about July 7, 2023 Gillette was threatened by UCFD1 that if he did not resign, his certification for his job would be put at risk which would jeopardize his ability to pursue his career at all.
  • “If [Gillette] resigns, the only box that must be checked is “resignation.” If this moves to termination, then DPSST will open its own investigation into this, putting his certifications at risk.”
  • The Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training is responsible for certifications of members of fire services in Oregon, including the certifications allowing Gillette to work in his chosen field.
  •  At the time the head of DPSST standards and training was, or at least had been, Chief Scott Stanton’s girlfriend.
  • As a result Gillette would not have had a fair or impartial review of the accusations against him, the Report and the evidence. Gillette could not afford to put his future employment at risk.
  • As a result of the threats from UCFD1 and the situation as a whole, Gillette had no choice but to submit a resignation. He submitted his resignation on July 13, 2023.

The suit alleges whistleblower retaliation under ORS 659A.199, whistleblower retaliation under 31 USC § 3730, a negligent investigation claim against Ferraris, Interference with Economic Opportunity Against Ferraris, defamation, denial of due process claim under 42 USC § 1983 (property right and liberty interest), negligent retention, and negligent supervision. Here is a copy of the complaint:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 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, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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