An outside investigation released Tuesday found no “direct evidence” that the Charlotte Fire Department retaliated against former fire investigator Crystal Eschert, who went outside the chain of command to complain about the quality of renovations of a city building.
But Greensboro attorney Allison Van Laningham’s 60-page report also found strong criticism of the fire department and the city.
She said many fire employees distrust department officials and said “the problem is so significant … many believe that any infraction or departure from the desires of certain members of the command staff will result in unfair punishment, targeting, and retaliation.”
The report added that “there are strongly-held beliefs (among employees) that dishonesty would be used as needed to bring about a desired result.”
Eschert was fired over what the city said was an offensive Facebook post about the unrest in Ferguson, Mo.. She said the department retaliated against her.
The report’s conclusion said it was possible that the department retaliated against Eschert but then said evidence “leads to the opposite conclusion.”
In a news conference Tuesday morning, Fire Chief Jon Hannan acknowledged employee concerns about retaliation and said he would develop a plan to improve the department.
He and City Manager Ron Carlee – whose relationship has been reportedly strained during the investigation – did not take questions after each read prepared statements.
The report ends one chapter in the Eschert controversy, though it’s likely the former arson investigator will sue the city.
Eschert’s attorney, Meg Maloney, said Tuesday in a statement that “there is a long history of inappropriate conduct that the city refuses to manage. We are prepared to do the work necessary to expose how the city defers and covers for fire department management, especially the fire chief.”
Eschert, who was fired for what the city said was an offensive Facebook post, is the first and only city employee fired for violating its social media policy.
The report stated: “Other fire department employees have made questionable posts on social media and received much less discipline.”
Eschert said someone associated with the fire department created a fake Internet persona that was used to discredit her. She said the department retaliated against her after she acted as a whistleblower.
Hannan has said he and other fire officials didn’t know Eschert was the person who had complained about the building.
The report found some inconsistencies during interviews but no evidence that tied anyone in the department to a scheme to punish Eschert. The report said investigators reviewed 5,000 documents, though it’s unclear whether they reviewed personal email accounts and text messages.
At one point during Eschert’s disciplinary process, fire officials urged Eschert to delete information related to the case and send documents by personal email.
Van Laningham’s report tried to reconstruct what happened in late summer and fall of last year, when Eschert complained to City Council member Claire Fallon about the quality of renovations in an old building that would house the fire investigation task force.
The report said several fire investigators were complaining about the quality of the North Graham Street building but Eschert was the most vocal.
One of her complaints was about air quality in the building. Another was that the fire department hadn’t received a necessary building permit for the renovations, which later turned out to be true.
The report said it did not have “evidence that part of the cost-cutting plan was to neglect to obtain required building permits or to avoid inspections so that shoddy work would not be discovered.”
The report also said securing the permit wasn’t a fire department responsibility, but it instead should have been done by the city’s building services department.
Days after Fallon toured the building, Hannan and police Chief Rodney Monroe received an email from a woman named Linda Havery complaining about Eschert’s Facebook post. In the post, Eschert questioned the White House’s response to the fatal shooting of an African-American man by police in Ferguson; she used the terms “thug” and “waste” and “worthless to society.”
Carlee later said Eschert’s use of the words were discriminatory and led to her firing. The report said the word “thug” was particularly disturbing to city officials, who said it was offensive to African-Americans.
Eschert has said thug was not meant as a racial term but was meant to be a term to describe criminals.
Eschert also has said Linda Havery doesn’t exist and was created to discredit her.
The Van Laningham investigation couldn’t find a Linda Havery in Charlotte and said there were “unusual aspects” about the emails and their timing. But having been unable to find Linda Havery, the Van Laningham report only said there are “significant questions.”
The Havery emails said Escher’s Facebook posts were being discussed on Al Sharpton’s fan page, but the report wasn’t able to confirm or disprove that.
Van Laningham’s report states it was inevitable that the city had to issue “significant discipline” against Eschert, in part because of the sensitivity of the Ferguson shooting as well as the Charlotte police shooting in which Officer Randall Kerrick was charged with voluntary manslaughter after shooting an unarmed African-American.
The report sheds light on the city’s efforts to terminate Eschert, which included discussions among multiple fire officials, police officials and city employees. The report said one employee had never seen so many people involved in a firing.
Some city employees said they worried the posts would damage the department’s relationship with the black community. Another concern: As an arson investigator, Eschert’s comments could be used against her if she were testifying in a trial.
During each meeting, “there was also an expressed opinion by one or more participants that Ms. Eschert should be terminated,” the report said.
But having so many people involved resulted in making it difficult for anyone not involved in the case to hear Eschert’s multiple appeals.
“It would be difficult to believe that decision-makers were unaffected by the collective discussion … and able to bring complete independence to their later consideration and review of that discipline,” the report said.
The City Council voted late Monday to release the report after discussing it in closed session for more than three hours.
The report said it was unable to interview only one person: At-large council member Michael Barnes, who is running for mayor.
Barnes said Tuesday he declined to be interviewed because he said he believes council members should stay out of personnel decisions. He said he had discussed the Eschert case with city officials but said he didn’t offer an opinion of what should happen to her.
The city also released a second report Tuesday about the fire department. Management Partners, a Cincinnati group, reviewed the department’s management.
The report offered 18 recommendations. Among them: Study whether to create a Professional Standards Unit for investigating complaints, reports of rule violations and employee misconduct, including complaints by residents.
The city didn’t detail the cost of the reports.