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Last night, WJLA reported that a pair of D.C. Firefighters are readying a civil lawsuit aimed squarely at D.C. Fire Department Chief Dennis L. Rubin. This fight has been brewing for years. The firefighters are claiming that their own department has botched numerous fire investigations and that the upper brass retaliated against them when they complained within the department and to the media. The fight heated up soon after the Eastern Market fire which some investigators say was arson.
The fight over the Eastern Market fire did not sit well with Rubin apparently. I know first hand how Rubin handles tough inquiries into that case. But investigators persisted. They complained about how the Mount Pleasant fire was handled and so on. Meanwhile, Rubin was still Chief Rubin.
The inevitable happened. Two whistleblowers—-D.C. Arson Investigators Greg Bowyer and Gerald Pennington—-were transferred to something called the Community Services Unit and generally toyed with. Now Bowyer and Pennington are fighting back. They plan on filing a lawsuit this week. They have scheduled a press conference for tomorrow at noon at Eastern Market. Last night we reached Bowyer.
So what is the community service unit?
“We’re not doing anything,” Bowyer says. “We may install one smoke detector a week. Other than that, we sit in a firehouse and do nothing. Pennington has been assigned to the rehab unit. What he does is serve snacks to firefighters—-granola bars and coffee and hot chocolate. The community service unit is a complete waste of time. It’s six of these units around the city and they do nothing.”
They’ve been on smoke detector and hot cocoa duty for some time. “It’s actually been longer than six months,” Bowyer says. In October, Bowyer says the department charged them with interfering with government operations related to a June fire at 317 L Street NE. Bowyer says there were problems with the way the L Street fire was investigated. And he had made noise about that case.
Bowyer says they have a tape of an official either bragging or warning that they were going to use the investigation to set them up. This official told them to not get involved with the L Street case—-“that it was a set up.”
By then, as the existence of the tape attests, Bowyer had been using his investigative skills for more internal matters like clearing his name and fixing the way the department investigates fires. Boyer says he’s had a 100 percent arrest and conviction rate. “I had the highest conviction rate in the department’s history,” he says. In June, he filed a complaint within the department. In August, he filed an EEOC complaint.
“Since Eastern Market, more than half of the cases have been botched,” Bowyer says. It was hard for him to stand aside and just watch cases get mishandled by inexperienced and under-qualified investigators or see Rubin jump in front of the first microphone—-like at Eastern Market—-and spout off without solid facts.
They aired their complaints up the chain of command and to the D.C. Council. At best, these complaints were met with indifference. They then went on WJLA and aired their grievances.
After the WJLA story ran, the fire department ordered them to write a special report, Bowyer says. He adds that as far as he knows the department never responded to the EEOC complaint. He says his whistleblower/retaliation lawsuit is aimed at a) probing the department’s misconduct and b) changing the way the department handles investigations.
Bowyer also hopes the lawsuit will impact Rubin’s employment. “If you talk to firefighters, the majority of the firefighters are not happy with him as a leader,” Bowyer says. “We do not see that accountability and transparency that he publicly projects…It’s the opposite. We know the dark figure of Rubin.”
Bowyer goes on to say:
“So many people are afraid to come forward. Hopefully by coming forward we will facilitate some serious change….Hopefully that change includes top leadership and Rubin. That will be more important than money at this time….It’s been awful for my immediate family and for my extended family. This administration has put members against members, front line against management. It’s just an awful day for the department and an awful day for the city.
This leadership has managed to divide the department from black to white, from the department and the community. There’s a level of distrust that hasn’t existed in years.”
As Bowyer prepared to file the lawsuit, the hits have kept on coming.
“I have an incident right now where a supervisor, who is a good supervisor, has been forced to falsify an official document at the behest of officers who work directly under the fire chief,” Bowyer says. “I have documents in support of that….This is all in an effort to find something negative on us.”
“The last thing we want to do is sue our own department and our own city. Chief Rubin has given us no choice,” Bowyer says.
*photo of Eastern Market fire by Arthur Delaney.