Former Mo. fire chief files lawsuit over firing for questioning board member ethics
Former Black Jack Fire Protection District Fire Chief Ankeneth Corbin claimed he was fired for questioning trips, expensive insurance plan
By Jacob Barker
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
BLACK JACK, Mo. — The former chief of the Black Jack Fire Protection District is accusing the district of firing him after he complained about board members using public money for trips and the chair obtaining an expensive health insurance plan.
The allegations, in a federal lawsuit former Chief Ankeneth Corbin filed in April, coincide with a push from his supporters to recall two of the Black Jack fire district’s three board members.
If proponents gather enough signatures to hold a recall election in April, it would be the second recall targeting a St. Louis County fire district board in the past two years. In November, Hazelwood-area residents recalled the three members of the Robertson Fire Protection District and replaced them with dissidents who had accused the district of draining resources from Hazelwood and called out its sales of used vehicles to employees.
Three residents of the Black Jack Fire Protection District in June filed with the St. Louis County Election Board a notice of intent to circulate a recall petition targeting chairman David Calhoun and board member Orlando Smith. It appears to be a response to the district’s decision in January to terminate Corbin, who since 2015 had served as chief of the district covering the area between Route 367, New Halls Ferry Road, Interstate 270 and the Missouri River.
“They will not give us a reason why he was terminated,” said Easter Warren, Corbin’s mother and one of the three signatories on the notice to circulate the recall petition. “They just say he is unfit. We as the taxpayers, I think, have a right to know.”
In a federal lawsuit filed in April, Corbin accuses the Black Jack Fire Protection District and Calhoun of discrimination and retaliation after the former chief complained about “ethical violations” from chairman Calhoun and at the fire district generally.
Among his allegations are that Calhoun “directed Plaintiff on multiple occasions to arrange for Calhoun to receive a decommissioned fire department vehicle at taxpayer expense.” Corbin refused and claims in the suit he has audio of Calhoun admitting to it. He said he submitted a letter in September 2021 to the board.
Calhoun “said that he wanted one of the vehicles for himself and his family but did not want to pay a lot for it and asked if I could arrange that which is highly inappropriate,” Corbin says he wrote in his letter. “He subsequently became annoyed during a later board meeting at my refusal to recommend that we sell the vehicles via bid rather than trading them in and insisted that I give a recommendation.”
Corbin also claims that Calhoun and board members took taxpayer-funded trips to Las Vegas, Branson and Atlanta. He says Calhoun had firefighters wash his car and run errands. And he said Calhoun “would routinely ask contractors of the Fire District for baseball tickets and other benefits; Plaintiff complained about this to the Board, but no action was taken.”
In 2018, Corbin said in his lawsuit, Calhoun asked Corbin to sign off on a health insurance plan that covered Calhoun that would have cost the district $178,000 more. Corbin refused, but Calhoun signed off on the plan for himself anyway.
It’s not uncommon for St. Louis-area fire protection districts to provide free health insurance to board members. While many city councils do not provide their often-volunteer members with taxpayer-funded health insurance, fire protection districts sometimes do. It was among calls for reform 20 years ago, but the practice continued at some districts.
Indeed, Corbin admits in his lawsuit that he had signed off on documents allowing board members to receive taxpayer-funded health insurance since 2016.
It’s not a major expense for fire districts, which tend to be in healthy financial shape. Black Jack, for instance, convinced voters last year to pass two property tax hikes that boosted its revenues by more than 30%, to $11 million, and it maintains a fund balance nearly twice its revenue.
More than a dozen area districts pay firefighters average salaries exceeding $100,000. Black Jack is actually on the lower end in the area. Its average salary was just under $96,000 in 2021. Corbin was paid $170,000, according to his lawsuit. The district also pays its board members. All three, including Calhoun and Smith, received more than $10,000 in 2022.
Both Calhoun and Smith hold sway among fire protection districts in the state. Calhoun is currently president of the Missouri Association of Fire Protection Districts. Smith as recently as 2022 served as vice president of the Missouri Association of Career Fire Protection Districts, which in recent years was tied to a political action campaign used by former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger, who went to prison for corruption.
Neither Calhoun nor Smith responded to requests for comment. The current Black Jack Fire Protection District chief, Roger Ellison, also did not respond to a request for comment. The district’s lawyer, Dan Bruntrager, whose firm has represented many area fire protection districts, did not respond to a question about whether board members pay premiums on their district-provided health insurance.
Corbin referred questions to his attorney, Jeff Hackney, who declined to comment.
Camera in office
Corbin’s relationship with the board reached a tipping point in 2021 after the former chief, who is Black, alleged he was the victim of racial discrimination. The board, which was majority Black, dismissed his complaint. Corbin in July 2022 filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Missouri Commission on Human Rights.
By late 2022, Corbin was convinced that Calhoun was rifling through his office. So he installed a camera. It confirmed that “Chairman Calhoun was indeed violating his privacy,” and he claimed that a supervisor was “going through” his “workspace and drawers.”
In December, then-Assistant Chief Ellison and Calhoun came to Corbin’s home and suspended him. Corbin says he had never been disciplined in his career.
On Jan. 17, he was terminated at a fire district board meeting. According to the lawsuit, the board cited his retention of a district laptop during suspension, installation of a recording device in his office and the lack of medical documentation for a mental health leave Corbin said he might need.
Corbin’s mother, Warren, one of the recall petition signers, said he recently questioned whether it was worth losing his six-figure salary for raising concerns about district spending and board member behavior. But she said she told him he did the right thing.
“He was raised in honesty,” she said.
A Facebook page for the recall petition says it has 1,200 followers. The petition’s two other signatories, Renova Chunn and James Gray, did not respond to requests for comment.
Fire district board members serve six-year terms. Smith faces reelection in April 2025. Calhoun faces reelection in 2027.
Calhoun was first elected in 2013 after beating Tony Weaver, a political operative close to north St. Louis County power broker Elbert Walton who was sentenced to prison this year after a federal corruption investigation. Weaver and Walton a decade ago worked for the Northeast Fire Protection District, which became embroiled in scandal partly due to the fees it paid them.
Walton’s son-in-law, Missouri Rep. Alan Gray, D-Black Jack, said James Gray is not related to him.
Erin Heffernan of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.