Officials throw out complaint against Wis. fire chief

Donald Bowen filed malfeasance in public office charges against Chief Randy Baker after he was removed from a volunteer post with the explorers program

By Neil Johnson
The Janesville Gazette

JANESVILLE, Wis. — The Janesville Police and Fire Commission on Thursday threw out a malfeasance complaint against Janesville Fire Chief Randy Banker, saying the former employee who made the complaint didn’t provide enough evidence to prove wrongdoing.

Former Janesville Fire Department fire inspector Donald “Jeff” Bowen last year filed charges of malfeasance in public office against Banker, Janesville Fire Marshal Sue North and Janesville Fire Department union President Lt. Paul VerHalen.

Former Janesville Fire Department fire inspector Donald “Jeff” Bowen last year filed charges of malfeasance in public office against Chief Randy Baker. (Photo/Janesville Fire Department)
Former Janesville Fire Department fire inspector Donald “Jeff” Bowen last year filed charges of malfeasance in public office against Chief Randy Baker. (Photo/Janesville Fire Department)

In summer of last year, VerHalen removed Bowen from a volunteer post in the explorers, a youth outreach program chartered by the fire department’s union and the Boy Scouts of America, a move Bowen resisted.

After that, Bowen alleged in his complaints, Banker, North and VerHalen lied to police about Bowen’s mental state and his work history. Bowen claimed they lied as retaliation for Bowen saying unfavorable things about Banker’s leadership during an exit interview last year with Janesville City Manager Mark Freitag.

Banker had defended himself against the malfeasance charges in a set of hearings in February, and Banker’s attorney, Mark Kopp, had filed a motion for the commission to dismiss Bowen’s charges.

Kopp and Bowen’s attorney, Victor Plantinga, gave final arguments during the hearing at the Janesville Senior Center. The commission huddled in closed session for nearly two hours before members unanimously and without public discussion voted to dismiss the charges.

The commission wrote in its decision that after several hearings, Bowen had “failed to present substantial evidence” to prove Banker had lied, retaliated or done anything more than provide police an “opinion” to police about a Bowen’s behavior in the last weeks he was on the fire department.

“Chief Banker did offer his own opinions and information from others who had interactions with Bowen, but the evidence is insufficient that he did so for retaliatory purposes,” the decision reads.

Bowen was a fire inspector with the department from April 2015 to April 2017. He quit the department in February 2017 after a disciplinary hearing Banker had with Bowen over a memo the latter circulated criticizing the fire department’s use of resources for inspections and investigations. Bowen thought the disciplinary action was unfair.

Bowen then criticized Banker in that exit interview with Freitag. Banker had previously declined to give Bowen an exit interview.

Bowen remained in the explorer post months after he quit the fire department.

VerHalen later decided to remove Bowen from the explorer post, according to police reports. In earlier hearings on the complaints, VerHalen said his decision was his own, although it came at Banker’s urging.

In his malfeasance complaints, Bowen has claimed Banker, North and VerHalen told police lies woven out of a patchwork of incidents involving Bowen that were spread out over a yearlong period of time.

Banker in testimony last month denied he told police Bowen was mentally unstable.

Kopp, Banker’s attorney, told the commission in closing arguments Thursday that Banker only characterized Bowen to police as being “angry and irritated toward the end of his employment.”

Kopp called Banker’s contact with police more of a case of “check welfare,” not a “criminal investigation” against Bowen, and he said Banker telling police Bowen had been “angry and irritated” was nothing but an “opinion.”

Kopp called the complaints a “colossal waste of everybody’s time and a colossal waste of everyone’s money.”

“And it needs to stop,” Kopp said.

Plantinga, Bowen’s attorney, said he likes the model the police and fire commission use to review such complaints.

“I’m grateful for the time (the commission) took to do it,” he said.

Kopp said the police and fire commission must still hold hearings on complaints Bowen filed against North and VerHalen, although dates for those hearings have not yet been set.

Copyright 2018 The Janesville Gazette

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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