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Chicago deputy commissioner reprimanded instead of suspended for sexual harassment violations

First Deputy Commissioner Mary Sheridan had allegedly accused a fire department official of having an alleged sexual relationship with another employee


Chicago Fire Department First Deputy Commissioner Mary Sheridan, shown in December 2021 at a memorial for fallen firefighters, was reprimanded this year for violations of the city’s sexual harassment policies.

Brian Cassella

By Gregory Royal Pratt
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — The second-highest-ranking official in the Chicago Fire Department was reprimanded instead of suspended after violating the city’s sexual harassment policies by commenting to a subordinate about an alleged sexual relationship, records show.

Investigators with the Chicago Department of Human Resources had recommended in May that First Deputy Commissioner Mary Sheridan be suspended for 10 days, but fire Commissioner Annette Nance-Holt decided on retraining and a written reprimand instead.

Sheridan didn’t complete the retraining until last week, more than three months after Nance-Holt informed human resources of her decision and shortly after the Tribune inquired about the case.

In a complaint filed with the Human Resources Department in August 2022, a fire official reported that Sheridan confronted him at work about an alleged sexual relationship with another Fire Department employee.

The complaint alleged Sheridan said: “We know you guys are f------, keep that s--- to yourselves.”

While investigating that allegation, officials learned Sheridan also allegedly asked someone: “Why are you f------ (name redacted)?”

In a May 2023 memo sustaining both allegations, the Human Resources Department concluded that although Sheridan denied making the comments attributed to her, it was “more likely than not that Sheridan engaged in the conduct alleged.”

“Comments relating to sexual intercourse are plainly sexual in nature and a violation of the (Equal Employment Opportunity) Policy,” human resources officials Mark Pando and Mary Pietrzak concluded in their memo to Nance-Holt.

In addition to violating sexual harassment policies, Sheridan failed to cooperate with the investigation, according to the memo. It stated that Sheridan refused to sign a document prepared by human resources summarizing their interview and instead submitted her own statement. She also left a second interview with her lawyer and declined to answer more questions.

“While Sheridan may have been acting upon advice from her legal counsel, we find her actions extremely troubling given that she is the second in command at CFD and her conduct should serve an example for employees throughout the department,” the officials wrote.

A month later, Nance-Holt responded to the complaint and said she disagreed with the recommended discipline.

“First Deputy Sheridan has served the Chicago Fire Department for over 43 years. In that time, First Deputy Sheridan has never had any sustained findings of similar misconduct,” Nance-Holt wrote. “To the Department’s knowledge, she has never even been accused of such conduct. While an employee’s rank may be seen as an aggravating factor in the determination of discipline, so too should their exemplary and discipline-free history be seen as a mitigating factor.”

Nance-Holt said the punishment was based, in part, on “what may be viewed as legal counsel’s over-zealous representation.” Nance-Holt agreed to “implement a written reprimand and schedule the employee for the recommended EEO retraining.”

She also said the Fire Department had sought to suspend Sheridan for three days but the Human Resources Department said suspensions of employees like Sheridan “must be in increments of weeks.”

“As CFD determined the appropriate suspension was less than five work days (one week), discipline of a written reprimand is the appropriate discipline available to be issued,” Nance-Holt wrote.

Sheridan did the retraining on Oct. 6, according to a Fire Department spokesperson.

In a written statement to the Tribune, Nance-Holt said the department will not tolerate sexual harassment and will “continue to work towards a safe working environment for all members of the Chicago Fire Department.” Sheridan’s attorney did not return messages seeking comment.

Records show Sheridan complained to the Human Resources Department about the way she was treated while the investigation was ongoing.

“I think you should take a step back and reconsider whether you are going to recommend that I be disciplined. Instead, you may consider whether you would want a supervisor to inquire about a potentially troubling relationship ... that a supervisor under my command has with a subordinate. I also think you may wish to consider if the interview process you are engaging in is actually intended to be a fact‐finding mission or one‐sided cross examination,” Sheridan wrote in a March email.

Sheridan’s lighter punishment comes amid ongoing scrutiny of the Fire Department over its handling of sexual harassment and racial issues.

In 2021, the city inspector general released a report urging the department to put stronger policies in place to deal with sexual harassment and racial discrimination. Of 45 female fire employees who responded to a workplace survey the inspector general’s office conducted, 26 reported experiencing sexual harassment at work.

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