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The D.C. Fire Department has lost one of its weapons in its fight against two whistleblowers. Fire investigator Gerald Pennington was set to face a trial board hearing today on charges that he allegedly claimed credentials he did not have. He was facing termination. Office of the Attorney General prosecutors—which would have handled the case—reviewed documents and announced that they would not go forward with the trial board. Its decision came down last Thursday.
On Feb. 5, the department charged 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 insisted that he had the proper credentials.
“I knew the charges were groundless. It was retaliation,” Pennington says.
If the charges lacked a certain shallowness, the motivations behind them had a deep history. For the past few years, Pennington and fellow fire investigator Greg Bowyer had become outspoken on the subject of their department, alleging that serious fire cases had been botched by inexperienced investigators and that the bad cases had been essentially covered up by top brass.
The two had sent countless e-mails up the chain of command. When those e-mails and subsequent meetings failed to produce results, they talked to the press.
Pennington and Bowyer had keyed on the controversial investigation into the Eastern Market fire. The two had spoken out last November to WJLA. By then the two had been transferred off the arson beat and put into details that had Pennington serving snacks to crews at fire scenes and Bowyer checking hydrants. We profiled Bowyer’s plight.
The department appeared to ratchet up its efforts to remove the two once the Post took notice. The day after Courtland Milloy published a column on Bowyer and Pennington, the fire department served Pennington with charges that he had falsely claimed to be a certified fire investigator. A full timeline of the whole saga can be found here.
“It’s extremely insulting,” Pennington says. He had been a fire investigator since late 2001. “I’d written well over 500-to-600 reports.” He adds that he and Bowyer have close to a 100 percent conviction rate.
On June 1, Pennington’s attorney David Marshall wrote a letter to Assistant Attorney General Charles Tucker outlining why the the charges against his client were bogus. Marshall describes the charge as “patently frivolous and intended only to retaliate against Mr. Pennington for his exercise of his legal rights.”
The charges stem from the fire department adopting a new policy over certifications. The new policy meant that a certified Pennington was not quite certified under the department’s new regs. It then charged Pennington with violating this policy. Here’s the catch: they charged him with violating the policy two months before they had adopted it. Marshall goes on to write:
“The due process violation grows out of the fact that the fire department seeks to penalize Mr. Pennington for violating a policy that did not exist at the time of his supposed infraction. The department first promulgated its policy against using the designation ‘CFI’ absent certification by the International Association of Arson Investigators (“IAAI”) on December 9, 2009—-two months after the October 9, 2008, incident that forms the basis for the charges….Because the rule was not in place when Mr. Pennington designated himself a CFI on a FD Form 23 on October 9, 2008, it would violate due process to apply the rule retroactively and to prosecute him on these charges.
In addition to accusing Mr. Pennington of violating a non-existent policy, the fire department seeks to punish him for listing his CFI credentials accurately and in a way that the relevant accrediting authorities agree was completely acceptable.”
In the Milloy piece, AG Peter Nickles attacked both Bowyer and Pennington. He was in full war mode:
“It’s quite an effort that these two guys are making, giving TV interviews, filing complaints,” Nickles told told Milloy. “We dispute almost everything they claim, including that they are individuals of distinction.”
So the OAG’s turnaround comes as somewhat of a surprise. Marshall praises the OAG for not going forward with its case against Pennington. “The department was so eager to victimize Pennington, that they went out of their way to charge him with false stuff,” says Marshall. “It was such a blatant attempt to railroad a fire fighter for having spoken out about wrongdoing at the top that the Attorney General and the fire department decided to do the right thing.”
Bowyer faces his own set of charges and is scheduled to go before a trial board on June 15 and June 16. “Those charges are false,” Bowyer says. “I’m really happy for Pennington. I hope the OAG does the right thing in my case as well.”
Pennington is still on hydrant detail in the community service unit. He says the fire department still won’t admit that he is a qualified, certified fire investigator.