The District government has never been a hospitable place for employees who talk openly about malfeasance. Whistleblowers get all forms of abuse, including bad assignments, cold shoulders, dismissal, and so on.
Fire department whistleblowers Greg Bowyer and Gerald Pennington experienced the push-back in a recent piece by Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy. The story quotes D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles on the efforts of Bowyer and Pennington to air their grievances against what they allege to be mismanagement in the upper ranks of the department. Nickles’ statement: “It’s quite an effort that these two guys are making, giving TV interviews, filing complaints. We dispute almost everything they claim, including that they are individuals of distinction.”
In an effort to clear their names, the fire investigators filed a civil suit in February in U.S. District Court. They have also amassed reams of paper (awards and commendations, e-mails, memos, etc.) and recorded phone conversations and memorialized meetings with testy higher-ups. Here is a rundown of their trajectory from arson investigators to concerned whistleblowers to hydrant-checkers:
* Spring 2007: After noticing an influx of mostly untrained, mostly white firefighters into their unit, Bowyer and Pennington begin raising concerns that these investigators are botching arson cases.
According to their civil complaint, they allege that because of their speaking out, they were cut off from investigating car fire cases— a pet project they had started up. Lt. Craig Duck reassigns those cases to the new white firefighters, to whom he refers as his “team.”
* July 1, 2007: Pennington is driving along Alabama Avenue SE when he spots what appears to be an illegal fireworks stand.
Pennington approaches the dealer as a customer. “He takes me to his car, pops the trunk of his car,” Pennington remembers. “A lot of good fireworks, the mortar shells, roman candles, of course, and the heavy display.”
Pennington negotiates with the dealer, Timothy Bridgewater, for $80 of heavy artillery. After Pennington makes the deal, Bowyer calls in his team and makes the arrest.
Bowyer then searches Bridgewater’s car. In the back seat, there is a backpack. Inside, there is a gun. Bowyer documents everything, taking pictures of the evidence where he found it.
The next day, fire officials do more than just commend the officers on a good bust. Fire Marshal Gary Palmer Jr. presents the team with free pizza and his homemade banana pudding.
Then, the case begins to unravel. One official thinks the gun was found in the front seat, not the back seat. There is confusion about how the gun ended up at the 7th District police station.
Bowyer then conducts a teach-in on the case, putting his photos of the investigation on a screen. Assistant Attorney General Lynette Collins is in the room at the time, according to Bowyer and Pennington. “This is proof,” he recalls saying as he showed his pictures. “This is why these cases get messed up.”
Not only has the chain of custody for the pistol become a problem, but the case has other huge holes. The fireworks go missing, along with the backpack. The handling of the case becomes a huge issue.
* Summer and fall 2007: “Lt. Duck pressured white investigators to stop associating with ‘Pennington’s team’ … “and to be loyal to his ‘team,’” the complaint states.
* Sept. 28, 2007: Palmer addresses the tensions in the unit in an e-mail. He writes that he has ordered a captain to “facilitate” meetings with Duck and each member of the unit.
* October 2007: Bowyer submits complaints about Duck to other fire officials. On Oct. 7, he writes an e-mail to both officials under the subject line “Just Venting.”
In that e-mail he details the issue with car fires not being investigated. He states that Duck took over the project in late March and that “very few FIU vehicle fires in general have been getting worked if at all. In fact, Since Lt. Duck took over the initiative only approximately three of vehicle fires cases have been closed. This is far below what was possible working these cases through the BVI project….[T]here are real victims of these car fires that depend on our investigations to help bring closure to their situations.”
* Nov. 1, 2007: Pennington tells Assistant U.S. Attorney Matt Graves about the missing fireworks evidence and the mishandled gun in the Bridgewater case, the complaint states. The U.S. Attorney’s Office drops the charges against Bridgewater. The U.S. Attorney’s Office refuses to comment on the matter.
* Nov. 8, 2007: Pennington and Bowyer are removed from their offices and housed in a small office with the K-9 dogs.
* Dec. 29, 2007: Bowyer has an allergic reaction to the dogs. Eventually, an ambulance is called and he is taken to Providence Hospital.
“After further review by the clinic, it was found that the allergic reaction was activated by pet hairs, skin etc. or a possible flee (sic) bite,” a department official states. “In the future, I recommend that there be two clean-ups, one at 0700 and the other at 1900. As well as a grooming policy be enforced with the K9’s and their linen cleaned weekly and removed daily.”
* Jan. 20, 2008: Pennington is given his official job-performance evaluation. He receives an overall grade of “exceeds expectations.” He is also deemed to have the necessary credentials (i.e. training and certifications) for his job.
* Feb. 26, 2008: Bowyer testifies in the Bridgewater case. According to the court transcript, Bowyer states he searched the defendant’s car and found what appeared to be a handgun in a bookbag in the back seat. But when shown a photograph of the gun, he testifies that this was not his photograph. His photographs, he testifies, were handed over to his superiors.
Bowyer’s statements open the door for the defense attorney to question the chain of custody and the evidence. Missing pictures turn out to be key. Doubt is raised about whether or not the gun was found in Bridgewater’s backseat.
Defense attorney John Iweanoge immediately raises the issue with the judge. Asst. Attorney General Collins tells the judge she wasn’t aware of Bowyer’s photos until the day before Bowyer took the stand. But prior to the trial, there had been email discussions about missing evidence.
Iweanoge asks Bowyer: “Are you a hundred percent sure that that is the gun that you saw on that date?”
Bowyer replies: “I didn’t fully examine the weapon then. I didn’t test fire the weapon, so I can’t testify to that either.”
* Feb. 27, 2008: Iweanoge questions the timing of when Collins knew about Bowyer’s photographs and other issues regarding the evidence in the case.
“There were questions raised by Investigator Pennington with (AUSA) Mr. Graves as to the issue involving chain of custody and how this case has been handled,” Iweanoge tells the judge, according to the court transcript. “He raised those concerns with Mr. Graves, and Mr. Graves exercised the prosecutorial discretion instead of falling into the pits…like Mr. Nifong did in North Carolina with the Duke case, Judge.”
Bridgewater is found guilty only of selling illegal fireworks to Pennington, not of the gun charge. The case is enough of an embarrassment that Collins, according to the civil complaint, reports the case back to the fire department and accuses Bowyer and Pennington of perjury, claiming Bowyer lied when he said he had notified her about the photographs. According to the transcript, Bowyer never testified under oath about mentioning the photographs to her prior to trial; it never came up during his testimony.
Bowyer insists he informed Collins and his supervisors about the evidence problems and his photographs at an initial meeting about the case the day after the arrest.
When asked about her claims against Bowyer and the lack of perjury evidence in the court transcript, Collins hangs up on this reporter.
* March 27, 2008: Since the Bridgewater case, it is not clear to Bowyer or Pennington if the OAG will continue to take their new cases. Bowyer e-mails Fire Marshal Palmer to ask about their status: Are they credible witnesses in the eyes of OAG or not?
Fire Marshal Palmer notifies all members of the FIU—including Bowyer and Pennington—that the attorney general’s office will take their cases. In an e-mail a few months later, Palmer assures Bowyer he has his support: “As I have told you on many occasions, I feel you do a great job.”
* June 18, 2008: A fire breaks out at 317 L St. NE. Initially, the complaint states, inexperienced fire investigators are charged with looking into that fire. Soon Palmer assigns Bowyer to investigate the case. Pennington joins him.
The following day, the complaint states, Bowyer reports to Palmer and Sgt. Phillip Proctor that the fire scene has not been properly processed and the original determination is flawed. Bowyer and Pennington manage to interview witnesses, find a suspect and get a confession. Later they find the initial reports have been altered to fit the confession.
Bowyer suggests the case be abandoned. Palmer overrules his suggestion.
* June 21, 2008: OAG is willing to prosecute the 317 L St. case. Sgt. Phillip Proctor tells Bowyer they are being set up by the OAG, the fire marshal, and Chief Dennis Rubin. “They knew all the issues with the case, they were going to let the case go forward and get thrown out,” Bowyer says. “And then blame the fact that they lost the case on us…. [Proctor] told us to get a lawyer.”
* June 23, 2008: Bowyer files an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaint. Pennington follows up with his own complaint letter a few days later.
* Aug. 1, 2008: The defense attorney in the 317 L St. NE case subpoenas Bowyer. This causes Bowyer to send off an e-mail to his superiors worrying about the effect this will have. His superiors worry enough to seek out the department’s general counsel.
Roughly a week later, Bowyer and Pennington testify. They are questioned about the problems with the investigation of the fire. The defendant is found not guilty of arson.
* Aug. 21, 2008: Bowyer and Pennington are transferred from fire investigations to the Community Service Unit.
* Aug. 26, 2008: Assistant Attorney General Ross Buchholz writes a memo to Chief Rubin praising Bowyer’s work in a case involving public corruption.
* Oct. 2008: Bowyer and Pennington file a complaint against Collins with the Office of Bar Counsel.
* Oct. 23, 2008: Deputy Attorney General Robert J. Hildum writes a letter to Mary Pat Brown, chief of the criminal division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, about Bowyer’s testimony in both the 317 L St. case and the Bridgewater case. He accuses Bowyer of perjury, writing:
“During my review of these cases I have come across testimony by Inspector Bowyer that appears to be untruthful.”
Hildum’s evidence is Bowyer’s claims that he had informed Collins and his supervisors about his photos taken in the Bridgewater case. “There is no documentation that Investigator Bowyer informed anyone of the existence of the photos, including AAG Collins and prior to locating the photos on his personal camera in the middle of the trial there is no record of the photos being printed or sent to anyone electronically or in hard copy.”
(Again, the court record shows that Bowyer never testified about Collins’ pre-existing knowledge of the photos but has said that he showed her the photos the day after Bridgewater’s arrest and gave photos to his supervisors.)
In the 317 L St. case, Hildum says Bowyer poked contradictory holes in the prosecutor’s case. He writes: “What is so troubling about this testimony is that June 20 Investigator Bowyer signed a PD-379” which trumpeted how the fire scene was consistent with the confession.
Bowyer says he never authored such a document, nor has the Fire Department produced it.
When asked about his letter, Hildum refers questions to the mayor’s office. “I don’t talk to the press,” he says. The mayor’s office refuses comment.
In the more than five months since it received Hildum’s letter, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has yet to file perjury charges against Bowyer.
* Oct. 24, 2008: The Fire Department accuses Bowyer and Pennington of “act(s) that interfere with the efficiency or integrity of government operations,” according to their civil complaint. This charge stems from their testimony in the 317 L St. case.
“It should be noted,” Bowyer writes. “I have openly expressed these issues to DCFEMS officials at the time the events were occurring and just prior to the WJLA report; and no actions except adverse actions against me were taken. If the DCFEMS Department was really interested in the facts and not merely attempting to further punish me or do damage control it would have actively and ‘impartially’ investigated [these] issues.”
* Jan. 6, 2009: The department dismisses charges against Pennington related to the 317 L St. case.
* Feb. 5, 2009: The department charges Pennington with falsely claiming that he is a certified fire investigator. In the charging document, the department writes: “The agency became aware of these facts on November 25, 2008.” Pennington says he has the proper credentials.
* Feb. 19, 2009: Bowyer and Pennington hold a press conference at Eastern Market announcing their civil suit.
* Feb. 20, 2009: The department files a list of proposed actions against Bowyer. They list a number of charges against him that stem from the 317 L St. case.
“I’m going to fight them. I’m going to fight them,” Bowyer says of the charges. “The charges are not true. I was surprised at how weak their claims were….It was baffling to say the least.”
* April 1, 2009: Courtland Milloy’s column on Bowyer and Pennington’s lawsuit runs. The next day, the fire department notifies Pennington he has a trial board date this month to address the issue of his certifications.
“They gave me the charges the day after the Courtland Milloy story,” Pennington says. “It’s the same pattern they used with Bowyer. They’re bogus. It is harassment. It’s retaliation and intimidation. I’m not intimidated. We’ve already stood up this far and we will continue to stand up.”