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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: Government Accountability Project
202.408.0034 ext. 137
D.C. Firefighter Terminated For Whistleblowing
WASHINGTON - October 13 - Firefighter Vanessa Coleman, previously a Captain with the D.C. Fire & Emergency Medical Services (F&EMS) Department and a 19-year veteran of the force, has been fired from her position as a result of blowing the whistle on wrongful actions taken against her by Department officials.
"We all should have the right to free speech and justice, but this is an unjust action that I will continue to fight," stated Coleman. "High level fire department officials, including Chief Dennis Rubin and Asst. Chief Brian Lee, have sought to make me a scapegoat for a fire which was proven not to be my fault in any way and have retaliated against me for challenging their orders that I submit to psychological testing. I have been terminated for blowing the whistle and standing up for what is right."
The termination follows last month's decision by the Fire Trial Board, the Department's so-called internal justice system, that Coleman be demoted two ranks for failing to acknowledge that an ordered, retaliatory psychological evaluation, or "fitness for duty" exam, was voluntary. Lawyers for Coleman assert that the order to undergo psychological testing was illegal.
"The ‘Trial Board' is a farce, and does not mirror any sort of proper hearing procedure whatsoever," stated Richard Condit, GAP Senior Counsel and co-counsel for Coleman. "It was obvious from the beginning that the decision would not be favorable - this is a hearing process under the direct control of Asst Chief Brian Lee and the Fire Chief. If you are blowing the whistle on senior management at the Fire Department you don't stand a chance of surviving the rigged Trial Board process." added Condit.
Although Coleman reported several times as ordered for the psych test, a particularly heinous form of retaliation, she would not submit to official pressure to state that she was taking the test "voluntarily."
"Its common sense that if you are ordered to take a test, you can't truthfully state that you're taking it voluntarily," stated Karen Gray, GAP General Counsel and co-counsel for Coleman. "She is being penalized through departmental actions that are clearly unsupported by law. Our client did nothing wrong - she told the truth about a botched investigation, and now she's paying an unacceptable price."
There are multiple problems with the fitness-for-duty system involving FEMS. Notably, Department officials are able to order firefighters to be tested on a whim, and firefighters may not be given access to the results and supporting information.
After the decision came down from the Fire Trial Board ordering a two-rank demotion, Coleman's superiors again ordered her for a fitness-for-duty examination, which again required an acknowledgement of her ‘voluntary' cooperation. Coleman instead chose to stand up against this wrongful action and refused to abide the Chief's illegal order. Coleman was delivered her official notification of termination by the department last Friday, October 9th - just before a holiday weekend.
"This isn't over," stated Condit. "We will continue with our suit against the department in federal court and are confident we will prevail. The actions by departmental officials are palpably improper. The DC Counsel should take a long look at the abuse of power and the retaliation that Coleman has had to endure."
Captain Vanessa Coleman has been steadily retaliated against since March 2008, stemming from the fallout of the Mt. Pleasant apartment fire in Washington, D.C. Despite a history beginning as a fire cadet in 1990, with subsequent promotions to Sergeant, Lieutenant, and Captain, and annual performance reviews greater than "satisfactory," Coleman has been singled out by department officials and made to bear the blame for the problems stemming from the fire. At the fire, Coleman was directed away from the basement of the apartment building to the third floor. This diversion was later found to be of great importance, as fire officials now believe the fire originated in the basement.
Audio of Coleman being ordered to the third floor can be found at this Web site: http://www.dcfirefeed.com/pleasant.htm
In the months following the Mt. Pleasant fire, then-Battalion chief John Lee, who ordered Coleman and her crew to the third floor, retired from the Department.
The retaliation against Coleman that has ensued since the filing is a laundry list of unacceptable actions that include: citations, a suspension, failure to support her authority as a Captain, stripped duties, and a transfer. In July 2008, Coleman received a notice that she was to report for a psychological evaluation, ordered by Assistant Chief Brian Lee. Upon reporting for the exam, she requested legal counsel, but was denied. Unwilling to submit to the exam under the conditions presented to her, Coleman was directed not to go back to work and to take sick leave until she was able to take a rescheduled psychological evaluation.
Months later, in August, Coleman and GAP staff met with F&EMS officials to discuss the order. At such meeting, according to a memo written from EMS Deputy General Counsel, Thelma Chichester:
The Department has offered to hold the pending Order for Cpt. Coleman to take the Fitness for Duty Examination as well as any administrative action which resulted from her failure to comply with a direct Order in abeyance pending the conclusion of the investigation into the charges of discrimination made by Cpt. Coleman.
After reaching this agreement, Coleman was finally allowed to return to work. Shortly after this meeting, Coleman received a notice that she was being charged with insubordination for failing to take the "fitness-for-duty" exam, as ordered. After refusing to check the "voluntary" box, Coleman was ordered to stand before the Trial Board proceeding, which started this past June.