Fla. fire chief terminated after sexual harassment allegations
Division Chief Chris Hoch, accused by a female subordinate of sexual harassment and retaliation, was fired by Interim Chief Michael Mackey with a four-paragraph letter
By Wayne Washington
Palm Beach Post
PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — Division Chief Chris Hoch, accused by a female subordinate of sexual harassment and retaliation, was fired by Interim Chief Michael Mackey with a four-paragraph letter, which was obtained by The Palm Beach Post Friday through a records request.
"This letter is to inform you that after careful consideration I have made the decision to terminate your employment as the Palm Beach County Division Chief of Operations, effective immediately," Mackey wrote to Hoch on Thursday. "All County property within your possession must be returned, in good condition, no later than 5 p.m. today. Your assigned County vehicle must be surrendered immediately. Following your discharge effective this date, you have the right to request a Name-Clearing Hearing. The request must be made in writing within five working days from the date of this letter. The request should be addressed to me. Thank you for your service with Palm Beach County. I wish you success in your future endeavors."
With that, Hoch's 20-year career at Fire Rescue was snuffed out.
Deputy Chief Thomas Tolbert, accused in a lawsuit by the same female subordinate of joining Hoch in ridiculing her, closed out his own 31-year year career in a two-paragraph letter, also obtained by The Post through a records request.
"This letter shall serve as my formal resignation from Palm Beach County Fire Rescue effective Friday, February 2, 2018," Tolbert wrote to Mackey. "It has been a pleasure serving the citizens of Palm Beach County for the past thirty-one years. Should you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact me."
Neither Hoch nor Tolbert responded to requests for comment Friday, but Hoch has previously denied the sexual harassment and retaliation claims made against him.
Mackey and Fire Rescue in their announcements about the departures of the two chiefs have not said that the end of Tolbert and Hoch's careers in the department had anything to do with sexual harassment and retaliation allegations.
But Mackey has acted swiftly to change the leadership at Fire Rescue since he was named interim chief after the resignation of former Chief Jeffrey Collins, who said county executives told him he should resign because of the sexual harassment and retaliation scandal.
On Friday, Mackey named Chief Douglas McGlynn as deputy chief of operations, replacing Tolbert. Chief Patrick Kennedy was named division chief of operations, replacing Hoch. Battalion Chief Tracey Adams was named district chief of Battalion 5.
In a letter to Fire Rescue staff, Mackey wrote: "We want each and every one of you to know that, despite the short time frame in which we had to make these important decisions, they were not made lightly. I have been reflecting over the past few days about where we are headed and how we can get there. I want all of our great employees to know that I am absolutely certain that Chief McGlynn, Chief Kennedy and Chief Adams are phenomenal leaders, motivators and team builders. This is our department. We are a team and we are moving forward. We have much more work to do in the coming days, so I ask every member of our team to encourage each other in order to keep this transition moving smoothly."
Mackey also will have the task of keeping Fire Rescue on track in the face of lawsuits Hoch, Tolbert or Collins might file.
Hoch and Collins are represented by lawyers from the same firm, The Berman Law Group based in Boca Raton. An attorney from the firm would not confirm or deny that Tolbert has retained counsel through the firm as well.
The Post reported in December that Fire Rescue Capt. Amanda Vomero had filed suit against the department and the county, alleging that Hoch repeated sexual rumors about her and retaliated against her when she complained. That news story also noted a lawsuit filed by Vomero's supervisor, Division Chief Joey Cooper, who alleged that Collins retaliated against him after he testified on Vomero's behalf in an internal investigation of her complaint and after he attempted to investigate a complaint of sexual harassment made against Hoch by another female firefighter.
Hoch was given a written reprimand last year for violating county rules against harassment and retaliation in the workplace. He has denied all of the allegations against him.
Vomero's suit mentions Tolbert several times, including an allegation that he brought her into Hoch's office for a meeting she thought was to discuss official business.
"As soon as she entered the office," the lawsuit states, "Tolbert looked at plaintiff, in front of Hoch, and said, 'Hey, Amanda, I heard a rumor about you.' Plaintiff immediately asked him to stop."
Vomero's suit also contends that, on Nov. 25, 2015, "while at headquarters, plaintiff overheard Chiefs Collins, Tolbert and Hoch laughing and joking about the past incidents involving plaintiff."
And, the suit continues, "Around Thanksgiving, 2015, Chief Tolbert commented to female staff that he had better be careful, or they would say he was sexually harassing them. All of this occurred while plaintiff was working in the same office as Chief Tolbert."
After The Post story was published, an unsigned letter said to be from "the anonymous women of Palm Beach County Fire Rescue" urged County Administrator Verdenia Baker to fire Collins. The letter also said, in capital letters: "CHIEF TOLBERT AND ESPECIALLY CHIEF HOCH MUST BE HELD RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR ACTIONS."
The Post has not been able to verify the identity of anyone associated with the letter, which was dated Jan. 5 and sent to Baker, county commissioners and U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach.
A second anonymous letter sent to The Post, dated Jan. 13, disputed the claims of poor leadership made in the Jan. 5 letter. The Jan. 13 letter criticized an investigation of the allegations against Hoch, which found that a hostile work environment exists within Fire Rescue.
"Chief Collins, Chief Tolbert and Chief Hoch are being scrutinized by everyone due to an investigated report that was completely one sided and the complainant and her witnesses had/have their own agenda," the Jan. 13 letter states.
On Jan. 19, during a press conference when Collins said he wanted his job back, the former chief also criticized the Hoch investigation, saying he did not oversee it and that it did not include interviews with enough staff members.
It remains to be seen what will come of Collins' complaints. His lawyers said he is considering his legal options.
Meanwhile, Mackey has moved forward with changes in the department.
"Please be assured," he wrote to Fire Rescue staff after accepting Tolbert's resignation and firing Hoch, "that the day-to-day operations will continue to focus on providing the highest quality services to our citizens without interruption. Please carry on performing your duties and responsibilities with the level of professionalism and integrity our citizens expect and deserve."
Copyright 2018 Palm Beach Post