Sources: Fire Chief told manager he released controversial document

2014 FILE PHOTO: Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee and Charlotte Fire Chief Jon Hannan.
2014 FILE PHOTO: Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee and Charlotte Fire Chief Jon Hannan. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte Fire Chief Jon Hannan told the city manager last week that he was responsible for a personnel document being released to the media in apparent violation of state law, according to multiple people familiar with the investigation.

The March 4 document was written by Ron Carlee, the city manager, and was about Marty Puckett, the vice president of the Charlotte Firefighters Association Local 660. Carlee warned Puckett that he no longer could work as an unpaid intern for City Council member Claire Fallon and he risked being fired if he continued.

Puckett and Fallon have been harsh critics of the chief, and Fallon previously had called for him to be fired.

The letter is part of Puckett’s personnel file, and isn’t open for public review. Releasing such a document is a misdemeanor under N.C. law. The maximum fine is $500.

Hannan was one of four people who received copies of the Carlee letter to Puckett.

State law said the person who releases the information must have acted “knowingly, willfully, and with malice.”

City Attorney Bob Hagemann said he isn’t aware of any Charlotte employee ever being charged for releasing information from a personnel file.

There hasn’t been any resolution to the short investigation about the leaked letter.

In a city where leaks to the news media are common, it’s not clear what the appropriate punishment is – if any – for the letter being given to WBTV News.

Complicating the issue is that Carlee is essentially a lame-duck manager. He is expected to continue as manager through the adoption of a new budget, which is expected by early June. He could remain in the job a few months longer, but a City Council committee has agreed to hire an outside search firm to find his replacement.

Hannan has worked for the department for 38 years and has been chief since 2007. At Monday’s council meeting, as many as 200 firefighters attended the meeting, standing in solidarity with Hannan.

During an interview Monday with WSOC-TV, Hannan was asked: “Did you leak the memo?”

His response: “No. You, you … I don’t have anything for you. Maybe in the morning, I’ll know something.”

Cynthia Shah-Khan, a spokesperson for the Fire Department, said Friday that Hannan didn’t say he didn’t release the memo during that TV interview. She said the chief was saying he didn’t have any information about the investigation that he could share.

When asked about city officials saying the chief had told the manager he had released the information, Shah-Khan said the city’s corporate communications office is handling such questions. The city didn’t have a comment Friday.

N.C. has strict laws on what the public can and can’t know about public employees. In some states, part of an employee’s personnel file is open to inspection, including performance reviews.

In the Puckett case, it appears the actual memo was released.

But would it violate state law if someone had released to the media or public the gist of Carlee’s warning to Puckett? Should the public have the right to know about the working relationship between a council member and prominent firefighter?

It appears Carlee and council members are wrestling with similar questions.

Another issue in figuring out how to respond to the leaking of the memo is the comparison to the punishment in another Fire Department personnel case: In the fall of 2014, then-fire investigator Crystal Eschert was terminated for what the city said was an inflammatory Facebook post.

Eschert has claimed the Fire Department retaliated against her for being a whistleblower about the safety of her unit’s new offices. Hannan and the city denied that.

Eschert hadn’t made questionable Facebook posts before but was fired for her first offense.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs