D.C. firefighter Vaughn Bennett had an odd job description during his last year of service. Every morning, he was required to call and check in with the fire department before 9 a.m. Every call was the same: Bennett would ask whether there was a change in the investigation, a department employee would say, “No change,” and Bennett would hang up the phone.
Although a lot of folks would love to pull down a full-time salary for making one meaningless phone call per day, Bennett considered the ritual a form of torture. “Could you do that?” he asks. “Every day, seven days a week, 365 days a year? I did that. I did that every day.” Until last week, that is, when he quit.
Bennett had put in almost five years on the job, and this was the year he hoped would bring his first real shot at making lieutenant. Instead, last March he was placed on administrative leavewith full payand informed he was the target of an investigation for allegedly sending a memo that slandered two fire department captains.
The barest hint of a downward curl pulls on the corners of Bennett’s mouth when you ask him, straight out, whether he did it. “No,” he says. “Of course not.” Then he buries the question under such a flurry of words that they’re flying like feathers shaken from a pillow, and you can forget about taking notes for a while. You’ve heard it before anyway, because it’s all he talks about: How he got screwed.
While Bennett insists upon his innocence, he says his ordeal has taken its toll: “People are afraid of me now. I feel like I’m in solitary confinement, a state of ostracism.”
Bennett straddles a barbed-wire fence separating an unrecoverable past from an uncertain future. He sleeps on friends’ sofas, borrows friends’ cars, and uses friends’ phones. He spends his days surfing the Internet for information he believes will help him in his lawsuit against the fire chief, the police chief, assorted underlings in both departments, and Mayor Marion Barry. He’s searching for a lawyer to replace the one he says screwed him. He watches out for the gunmen he thinks are stalking him and the gumshoes he’s sure are videotaping him. He hasn’t seen his daughter in months. He’s in the middle of a divorce. Occasionally, he talks to a psychiatrist.
But mostly, Bennett is consumed by reflections on the man he used to bea firefighter who loved his work and dreamed of becoming an officer and eventually fire chief. And he dwells on how one memo killed those dreams.
Last March, an anonymous memo came burbling out of all the printers in the fire department at the same time. It was not signed, which was understandable, because its contents were explosive.
The memo accused two District of Columbia Fire Department (DCFD) captains of an alleged conflict of interest: The captains were organizing group-study sessions for a DCFD promotional exam, said the memo, while they sat on a special committee charged with formulating the exam. The allegations rocked the department.
Only five years before, a group of black firefighters had sued the department charging that the tests were rigged to keep black firefighters out of the officer ranks. That lawsuit, dismissed at trial, is currently on appeal.
Fire Chief Otis Latin responded to the allegations by removing both captains from the test-writing committee and ordering an investigation. According to a top official in the fire department, the investigators determined that there had been no study group and no cheating. The test was duly administered last summer, and the results are reflected in the current DCFD hierarchy.
Once department investigators dismissed the charges, they focused on learning who had written and transmitted the anonymous memo. This is the hammer that came down on Bennett. After spending all day being grilled by police without benefit of legal representation, Bennett was told to go home and wait. That was last March. DCFD’s bureaucracy then slowly pummeled Bennett into submission, until his resignation last week.
Bennett was a logical suspect in the department’s memo scandal. In the midst of a July 1995 battle to decertify the D.C. firefighters union, Local 36, DCFD supervisors caught Bennett sending a memo through the departmental system accusing the union of various sins and trying to convince union members to vote it out of existence. He was reprimanded for using government property without authorization.
Although investigators haven’t proven that the more recent memo about testing bore Bennett’s electronic fingerprints, they knew he had visited the station where the memo originated shortly before it was sent, says firefighter Hassan Umrani, who worked in that station at the time and was himself questioned about the matter. “I know one thing,” Umrani says. “The department is very reluctant to put anyone on administrative leave unless they have good evidence against that person.”
By the time he was hauled in for questioning last March, Bennett’s penchant for rabble-rousing memos had reserved for himself a high slot on an impressive number of shit lists.
Bennett was known as a veritable spigot for griping, says a top fire department official who dealt with him on a regular basis. “Sometimes it’s difficult to talk to firefighter Bennett,” he says. “He’s not unintelligent, but he has a tendency to blow things out of proportion. The direction and the degrees to which he takes matters when he gets to saying, ‘This is right,’ or ‘This is not right,’ are way off center. I mean, it’s, like, extreme.”
Whenever something about the job annoyed him, Bennett fired off a memo about it to Latin. He sent memos arguing that the compartments in the firetrucks were too small, that the training given firefighters was inadequate, that too few firefighters were sent out on calls, that firefighters were making inappropriate jokes on the job, that firefighters were dissing the neighborhood. That’s the short list.
The standard Bennett memo is a rollicking boil of turgid breathlessness and cloying self-righteousness, with a dash of racial animus thrown in here and there. A typical sample:
“As I had informed them that I would be detailed to Engine 14, Firefighter Greene, who is white, responded, ‘They catch some fire at fourteen.’ I replied, ‘I hope there aren’t any fires.’ F/F Greene said, ‘Why not?’ I said, ‘Because people die in fires and their property is destroyed or damaged, but if there is a fire, I’d like to put it out.’ F/F Greene said, ‘You need to go to fourteen.’ I feel this comment was made because of the fact that…”
Another of his memos complained that his captain had stayed in the firetruck during a medical call instead of getting out and leading the troops, as the training manual says he should. This complaint, like most, was investigated by Deputy Fire Chief James E. Gallagher, whose goat this time was evidently got.
“Why F/F Bennett sent this report to you, I don’t know?? What he wants you or anyone else to do, I don’t know?? As far as I am concerned, he is totally out of line dealing with your office and should be told so, and also told to follow the proper chain of command,” Gallagher wrote in his report to the chief. “In my opinion he is nothing but a big trouble maker who we probably haven’t heard the last from yet. This guy needs help, maybe he needs to be sent to the clinic for evaluation and help.”
It wasn’t Bennett’s worst sin against the chain of command. Three times Bennett showed up on the doorsteps of relatives of people who had recently died in fires. His mission each time: to unload on the department. “I felt it was my duty to let them know that we were not properly trained,” he says. That was Bennettalways stirring the pot and never watching out for the splashback.
A department official who describes Bennett as “way off center” admits that sometimes Bennett’s complaints were dead on. “When a firefighter is out there not treating the community with the proper respect, you need to know about it. And firefighter Bennett could be counted on to let you know,” he says. “But what he doesn’t understand is that we deal with all of this on a daily basis. Firefighter Bennett doesn’t have the background to know the difference between where we’ve been and where we are now.”
The sad thing is, Bennett was as good at fighting fires as he was at firing off memos to DCFD management. “I’ve got nothing but good to say about him,” says Umrani, who often teamed up with Bennett.
Bennett didn’t just respond to calls and then call it a day. He got involved in the lives of the people around the firehouse.
Seven years ago, 7-year-old JaBari Bishop was playing tag when he slipped while climbing over a fence and landed on a spike that impaled an eye. He lost that eye, but it could have been worse, recalls Pat Bishop, JaBari’s mother. “Thanks to Bennett, JaBari can still see,” she says. “Bennett was the first one in the door, and he immediately wrapped up both eyes so the damage wouldn’t spread. That saved his other eye, the doctors said.”
Over the next several years, Bennett became a sort of unofficial big brother to JaBari, whose father doesn’t live with the family in their Trinidad home, which is around the corner from Bennett’s former engine company.
“Bennett would come by every day, every other day,” Bishop says. “He kind of got JaBari back up on his feet, because he was so depressed about losing his eye. Then JaBari got interested in what the firefighters do and he started hanging out at the station.” JaBari was often seen chasing after speeding firetrucks on his bicycle.
The department says the investigation of Bennett is now winding up. “We ought to be getting very close to resolution within the next two or three months,” says Alvin Carter, a battalion chief in the public information office. He won’t speculate on what that resolution may involve.
And step by tentative step, Bennett is beginning to think about the future. It’s beginning to sink in that his career with the fire department is over, and he’s got to move on to something else.
He’s still in the brainstorming phase, though, and he doesn’t feel capable yet of coming up with a focused plan. One day he’s looking into “business opportunities that might present themselves.” The next day he’s “maybe going back to school.”
But not reallyat least not yet. “Right now I have to recover from what I’ve been through and evaluate my situation,” he says. “The last six years of my lifeI don’t want to say they were for nothing, but that’s where I’m coming from, you know?”CP