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Charlotte Area

Report Finds Fear Of Retaliation And Distrust At Fire Department

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City of Charlotte
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Last fall, Crystal Eschert became the first city employee officially fired for violating the city’s social media policy. Eschert was working as an arson investigator at the time. She believes she was fired for being a whistleblower.

Tuesday, city officials released an independent review of the incident they say proves there was no retaliation against Eschert.

But the findings of the 60-page report are nowhere near that clear cut. It’s an indictment of a culture of fear and intimidation at the Charlotte Fire Department. And raises questions about whether she was fired for cause.

On Tuesday, Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee praised the report as an example of open government.

"You see excellent organizations cannot be afraid of what they will learn from outside review." And then he refused to take questions saying, "you’ll have copies of our statements and you’ll be getting two very long and very complicated reports."

The reports are actually pretty clear. One, is from a group of management consultants which contains recommendations like:

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Crystal Eschert

The other, written by an outside attorney investigating the firing of Eschert, is a much more interesting read. Take Carlee’s summary as he reads from the report.

"We did not find direct evidence of retaliation to Ms. Eschert’s termination.” And,  “There is no document, no witness testimony that directly proves retaliation or targeting."

That is incomplete at best. Take this excerpt for example:

Although no one could provide specific information to establish retaliation or targeting, most everyone we talked to believed that it very well could have happened. Many gave voice to a fear that appears widespread that any action deemed undesirable by certain members of the command staff will result in targeting and discipline.

The report begins with a basic timeline of events.

On August 14, 2014, Eschert emails City Councilwoman Claire Fallon. Eschert at the time was an arson investigator with the Charlotte Fire Department. She and her colleges had just moved into a new building. Eschert was complaining about what she saw as shoddy workmanship and irregularities in its renovation.

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Credit From the independent report
Excerpt of email from Crystal Eschert to Councilwoman Claire Fallon.

Five days later, Eschert sends Fallon a second, more detailed list of problems. This includes Eschert's observations that the building’s basement leaks, the structure is not safe in the case of a fire, and it would fail an electrical inspection among many other issues.

She elaborates her belief writing "all work being done without permits even though the sub-contractors have told the Fire Department’s chief that the building will not pass inspection."

That was on August 19. The next day, Councilwoman Fallon tours the building with Carlee, other city officials and members of the Fire Department’s senior staff. The report states this is not the first time Crystal Eschert has complained about the work on a Charlotte Fire Department building. And that, the report found, may have had consequences.

Others who knew of her complaints warned her that speaking out could draw negative attention and thus result in Ms. Eschert having a target on her back.

This is why Eschert believes she was fired.

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Credit From the independent report
A copy of Eschert's Facebook post

But on August 20, the same day Fallon toured that building Crystal Eschert posted this on Facebook during the aftermath of riots in Ferguson, Missouri: “White guy shot by police yesterday near Ferguson….where’s Obama? Where’s Holder? Where’s Al Sharpton…”

Further down it reads, "So tired of hearing it’s a racial thing. If you are a thug and worthless to society it’s not race – you’re just a waste no matter what religion, race or sex you are.”

Six days later, someone by the name of Linda Havery writes to complain about that post. She notes Eschert works for CMPD or with fire department, details found nowhere in the post or on Eschert’s Facebook page.

Eschert believes that letter is actually from a member of the Fire Department posing as Linda Havery. The email, Eschert believes, is an excuse to fire her.

On Tuesday, Carlee said that accusation is ridiculous and quoted the report as saying, "We do not have evidence to conclude that Linda Havery email necessarily came from someone within the Fire Department." That is again only partially true. Here is more of what the report states:

We found no direct evidence that the Linda Havery emails were from a person of authority seeking to create a reason to terminate Ms. Eschert. However, without knowing the identity of Linda Havery we cannot eliminate this possibility.

Linda Havery has never come forward. The Charlotte Observer reports they have not been able to identify a Linda Havery in the Charlotte area. The report states that it would take a subpoena to definitively answer this question.

But the most troubling finding in the report might be this,

There is an environment of distrust in the Fire Department, or at least certain parts of it, that is so significant, that it causes many to believe that any infraction or departure from the desires of certain members of the command staff will result in unfair punishment targeting and retaliation.

And this,

The circumstances and timing of the Facebook post and complaints about the Arson Task Force building have enough strange intersections that one could reasonably believe that there is a connection.

The report states that, from the information they received, the firing of Eschert seems to be about that Facebook post.  But then adds:

The circumstances are such that we too believe that it is possible that Ms. Eschert was the subject of retaliatory termination.

The report does not excuse Ms. Eschert’s post. In fact, it states that some form of discipline was inevitable. But it also point out the appearance a different set of standards for the Fire Department’s rank file and senior leadership. Take the case of Deputy Chief Jeff Dulin.

After Ms. Eschert was terminated there was a separate incident involving Deputy Chief Dulin, who was perceived to have a close relationship with Chief Hannan and Deputy Chief Granger.

Dulin posted a derogatory joke about Bruce Jenner – to Facebook. The city found it insensitive to the transgender community, but,

He was allowed to retire, causing some to believe that the same rules of conduct do not apply equally to all employees.
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Credit City of Charlotte
Chief Jon Hannan addressing the media on Tuesday.

In response to these claims of a culture of fear and favoritism at the fire department, Chief Jon Hannan said, "The findings of distrust and fear of intimidation do not reflect my vision for the Charlotte Fire Department."

He praised the rank and file saying they were "dedicated people who save lives every day." And added "I take this very seriously and will review the report carefully."

City Manager Carlee said he too is reviewing the report and will issue recommendations to the city council with 30 days.