Fire chief: City initially 'forbid' whistleblower probe

Fire investigator Crystal Eschert was fired for violating the department's social media policy after posting about Ferguson on her Facebook account


The Charlotte Observer

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Charlotte Fire Chief Jon Hannan said City Manager Ron Carlee initially forbade him to investigate a fire investigator for a controversial Facebook post last fall because the manager was under "pressure from a council member," according to a transcript of a hearing about the case from early March.

The chief said he eventually persuaded Carlee to let the probe move forward. The department then fired Crystal Eschert for her comments about the aftermath of the police shooting in Ferguson, Mo.

Eschert has said that the department retaliated against her for being a whistleblower.

After media reports about Eschert’s allegations, Carlee hired an outside attorney in December to investigate her claims about retaliation. The report isn’t finished yet, the city said.

Hannan’s comments were made during a Civil Service Board hearing in early March, in which Eschert unsuccessfully asked that the board handle her appeal.

“The city manager called me and ordered me to stop the investigation,” Hannan said, according to the transcript.

The chief’s testimony, if true, raises questions as to why Carlee first stopped the investigation, and then allowed it to start again three weeks later.

Hannan said during the hearing that he believed that Carlee was getting “pressure” from a City Council member to stop the investigation, according to the transcript.

At-large council member Claire Fallon said she believes that is a reference to her.

Eschert had reached out to Fallon in August about the quality of renovations at a building on North Graham Street that would house the fire investigation team.

She said she contacted Carlee about problems with the building, and said she had told him that Eschert was a whistleblower.

Eschert’s Facebook post questioned whether the White House and civil rights leaders would have paid as much attention to the Ferguson shooting if the victim where white. She also used the words “thug” and “worthless,” which Carlee said later was discriminatory.

Eschert said the Facebook post was used only to retaliate against her because of her complaints about the fire investigation building, in which renovation had been done with a required building permit. Hannan has denied that allegation.

She said someone associated with the department created a fake Internet persona to complain about her post.

During the hearing, Hannan said about three weeks passed after Carlee ordered the probe to stop.

“I told the city manager that the posting was an extremely bad thing for the city not to deal with in that environment,” Hannan said in the hearing. “I had the police chief calling me and saying, ‘We have to deal with this. It involves both departments (because Eschert was a public safety employee).’ And (Carlee) forbid me to move forward. It took me three weeks to convince him to let us finish the investigation.”

The city said Tuesday that Carlee stopped the investigation to make sure there were no First Amendment concerns with Eschert’s post. Once the City Attorney’s Office determined that her termination could be defended, the Fire Department was allowed to proceed, said city spokeswoman Sandy D’Elosua.

Hannan was asked by the Observer Tuesday about whether he and the manager talked about the free speech aspect of the case. The chief referred to the transcript of the hearing, in which he said “pressure” from a council member was the reason the investigation was stopped.

When Eschert was fired in September, the department told her that it had to terminate her because the City Council was upset about the posts and because the Observer had made a public records request about her case.

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