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Charlotte: Whistleblower probe of Fire Department not public

Crystal Eschert, former Charlotte fire investigator who said the city fired her after she acted as a whistleblower, and she believes that someone associated with the fire department created a fake persona and email account in an effort to discredit her.
Crystal Eschert, former Charlotte fire investigator who said the city fired her after she acted as a whistleblower, and she believes that someone associated with the fire department created a fake persona and email account in an effort to discredit her.

The results of a Charlotte whistleblower investigation are not public record, although the City Council could choose to release the report, the city attorney says, and the council could discuss the report at a meeting Monday.

In December, City Manager Ron Carlee hired a Greensboro attorney to investigate whether the Fire Department had retaliated against a former fire investigator after she raised safety questions about a building the city was renovating on North Graham Street.

The offices of Crystal Eschert’s unit were to be housed in the building.

Eschert was fired in September. She said someone associated with the department created a fake Internet persona to discredit her and that she was terminated because she contacted a City Council member about the building.

Fire officials have denied that the department retaliated against her. Fire Chief Jon Hannan said she was fired because she made an “offensive” Facebook post about the aftermath of the Ferguson, Mo., police shooting.

He said he didn’t know Eschert was the employee who complained and that she wasn’t the target of retaliation.

Attorney Allison Van Laningham has interviewed Eschert, as well as other Fire Department employees, about the case. At the time she was hired, Carlee said the city “will not tolerate retaliation against an employee who makes such a report, and the city cannot afford to have employees second-guess whether or not to make such a report.”

The City Council is scheduled to meet in closed session Monday and could hear a presentation about the investigation.

City Attorney Bob Hagemann said Friday that the report is not a public document because it would be part of an employee’s personnel file. But he said it’s possible the City Council could vote to release the report, or a summary of it, if the information is “essential to maintaining public confidence...”

There also is a second investigation wrapping up about management practices and disciplinary procedures at the department. That report will be public, Hagemann said.

Claire Fallon was the council member who received the complaint from Eschert about the renovations. “It should be public,” Fallon said. “The city is hiding behind process. The taxpayers paid” for the investigation.

The Charlotte Fire Fighters Association, which was interviewed for the probe, also said the report should be public.

“In matters of public interest, we firmly believe in full transparency of government, particularly when public funds are used,” the association said Friday.

The city had a similar situation in 2010, when former Mayor Anthony Foxx sent an email to council members, warning them not to harass employees. Foxx was referring to former council member Warren Turner.

The City Council voted to hire an outside attorney to investigate. When Valecia McDowell presented her findings, it was during the council’s dinner meeting, which was open to the public.

In that case, the results of the investigation were made public, but Hagemann said the two cases are different.

He said the Fire Department employees work for the city and are protected under the state’s laws governing the release of personnel files. He said Turner was not a city employee when he was a council member.

Council members are considered part of the top line of city government, responsible for hiring the manager and attorney. Their paychecks come from the city.

Harrison: 704-358-5160

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