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4 firefighters sue Va. city in test cheating scandal

They claim results of an annual captain’s exam were tainted when a battalion chief gave confidential test information to two firefighters

By Jane Harper
The Virginian-Pilot

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Four Virginia Beach firefighters who were denied promotions last year are suing the city. They claim results of an annual captain’s exam were tainted when a battalion chief gave confidential test information to two firefighters .

The lawsuit was filed last week in Circuit Court on behalf of longtime firefighters David Scherrer, Richard Irving, Alexander Wazlak and Mark Bayly, who were among 36 firefighters taking the exam last year. Wazlak was just promoted to captain last week, but the rest still hold the rank of master firefighter.

The group is not asking for monetary compensation. Instead, it wants results of the promotion process to be thrown out and the procedure to be redone.

The four firefighters began trying to get the results tossed last year, when they filed a grievance with the city. A city personnel board heard the case in January and unanimously agreed the promotion process was corrupted, said attorney Andrea Ruegle, who represents the firefighters.

“They basically said, ‘Yes, it was compromised, and you’re right, but we can’t do anything to remedy it,’?” Ruegle said.

Virginia Beach Attorney Mark Stiles said the city acted appropriately and will defend its position in court.

“The city correctly applied its written grievance procedure, and these employees had a full hearing before the personnel board, a group of citizens specifically appointed to hear employee grievances,” Stiles said. “It ruled that the challenged promotion process not be set aside. The city believes the personnel board’s decision was consistent with law and city policy.”

The annual captain’s exam was administered in May 2017, according to the lawsuit. The test consists of two parts: a written exam and an assessment center evaluation.

Firefighters are given a tactical problem that makes up a big part of their score. In it, test takers are presented with a scenario they have to oversee as the captain in charge, according to Bill Bailey, president of the Virginia Beach Professional Firefighters Association.

There usually is some type of curve ball they have to deal with, he said.

Before the test , Battalion Chief William “Billy” Reynolds told two of the exam takers – Master Firefighters Nena Myers and Ronan Carr – what the tactical problem would be and the curve ball they should expect, Ruegle said.

Reynolds also was among the assessors who graded the firefighters . Myers scored a 95 on that part and Carr received a 100. Carr’s perfect score is believed to be a first for the department, the lawsuit claims.

“My experience is if you know what the tactical problem is, you have the golden key,” Bailey said .

At first, fire officials thought Reynolds only shared the information with Meyers, Bailey said. An investigation was conducted and, as a result, Reynolds was demoted two ranks, to master firefighter, and Myers was demoted one rank, to firefighter, the lawsuit says. Reynolds has since left the department, but Myers still works there.

It was later revealed in an administrative hearing that Carr – who was promoted to captain as a result of his performance and continues to hold that rank – also received the confidential information, the lawsuit says.

Carr initially admitted he had been tipped off, but later said he didn’t know the information was confidential, the lawsuit states.

While the scandal may be several months old, it continues to rock the approximately 500-member fire department, Bailey said.

“The ramifications from this will last for years,” he said.

“It still affects morale to this day, and it’s still the number one topic of conversation at all the firehouses.”

Copyright 2018 The Virginian-Pilot