Firefighters back city's probe of whistleblower retaliation

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. — The Charlotte Firefighters Association on Tuesday welcomed City Manager Ron Carlee’s plan to hire a third party to investigate an allegation that the Fire Department retaliated against a whistleblower.

But others involved with former fire investigator Crystal Eschert’s case questioned whether an outside party would be given the leeway to fully probe the case.

“It needs to be a forensic investigation,” said at-large council member Claire Fallon, who received a complaint from Eschert. “But I don’t think that will happen. The city is too compromised.”

In August, Eschert complained to Fallon about what she believed were unsafe conditions at a city-owned building on North Graham Street, which was to be the home for the Fire Department’s arson task force.

Soon after, Fire Chief Jon Hannan received an email complaining about one of Eschert’s private Facebook posts, on the aftermath of the police shooting in Ferguson, Mo.

The post questioned whether the White House and civil rights leaders would have paid the same amount of attention to the case if the victim were white. The post also said: “So tired of hearing it’s a racial thing. If you are a thug and worthless to society, it’s not race – You’re just a waste no matter what religion, race or sex you are!”

Eschert is the first person in the city fired for violating its social media policy.

Carlee on Monday said her comments were in conflict “with our responsibility to serve all members of the community.” Labeling some people as a “thug,” “worthless,” or a “waste,” is “inherently discriminatory and, in the circumstances that this post was made, inflammatory,” Carlee wrote.

Eschert said the complaint was manufactured by someone associated with the Fire Department in an attempt to discredit her.

She and her attorney, Meg Maloney, complained to the city in October, saying Eschert had been fired for being a whistleblower. The city had dismissed those allegations and said there was no evidence that anyone would have any reason to retaliate against Eschert.

Carlee on Monday changed course. After a meeting with council members in closed session, the city announced it would hire a third party to investigate.

“I will not tolerate retaliation against an employee who makes such a report, and the city cannot afford to have employees second guess whether or not to make such a report,” Carlee said in a statement.

The department’s top officials, Hannan and Deputy Chief Rich Granger, have said they didn’t know Eschert was the employee who complained.

“I had no idea she made that complaint,” Hannan said in an interview Tuesday.

In an interview with the Observer last week, Eschert said she raised her concerns with her immediate supervisor in the Fire Department before contacting Fallon.

Four years ago, the city also hired an independent third party to investigate an allegation that former City Council member Warren Turner had harassed a female employee. Former Mayor Anthony Foxx had told council members not to harass staff in an email, in a reference to a complaint made about Turner.

Valecia McDowell of Moore & Van Allen conducted that probe, which was extensive. She interviewed nearly 20 city officials, reviewed emails, handwritten notes and checked the landline phone records at the Government Center in an attempt to check the accuracy of one council member’s interview.

Maloney said she has been working to secure the electronic files from the emails that complained about Eschert. The attorney said she is working to find the origin of who made the complaint.

“Are they truly hiring someone to conduct an independent, impartial, third-party investigation and report, or are they preparing an expert report for use in any expected litigation?” Maloney said.

It’s unclear how many documents will be reviewed in the investigation.

When her case was initially under review, Eschert said last week that she was instructed not to send correspondence about the case to a city email account. She said she was told instead to send emails to the personal email accounts of supervisors.

Carlee didn’t announce details of who would conduct the probe or how much it would cost.

The city already has plans for another third party to review the Fire Department.

The president of the association, Tom Brewer, complained this fall that Hannan tried to “assassinate” his character in a dispute over whether firefighters should have mandatory physicals.

“A number of concerns have been raised about management in the fire department,” Carlee wrote. “The fire chief recently asked for a third party to do a management review and provide advice on how to improve the situation.”

Brewer said he approved of having another third party review Eschert’s case.

“The city’s current system of investigating disciplinary actions and grievances is broken, and we have called for third-party involvement,” he said.

The city has maintained that the building on North Graham Street – which will house fire investigators – is safe. A city employee had sent email in September that stated a consultant had recommended that the city shouldn’t move people into the building until all renovations and cleaning were complete.

Hannan said Tuesday that the employee had misinterpreted the consultant, and that the consultant told them it was safe for officials to work there.

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