A former Charlotte fire investigator 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 city said that Crystal Eschert’s claims of retaliation are false and that she was fired because she had made what the city said were two offensive Facebook posts in August.
Eschert’s firing is the city of Charlotte’s first termination for violating the city’s policy on using social media.
The city manager’s office denied her last appeal a week ago.
The case raises questions about what public employees can and can’t say, even when they make an Internet post visible to only personal Facebook friends. And it has highlighted allegations made by the Firefighters Association that there is a culture in the city that punishes those who go outside the chain of command.
Eschert said the fire department retaliated against her after she raised questions about the quality of renovations at a new arson unit center on North Graham Street. Eschert, who had worked for the city since 2010, had contacted a City Council member about safety concerns in the building, including asbestos and other air-quality issues.
Eschert contacted Claire Fallon, who chairs the public safety committee, on Aug. 14, and Fallon toured the site on Aug. 20 with officials, including City Manager Ron Carlee and Deputy Fire Chief Rich Granger.
Around noon Aug. 20, on the day of the walk-through with Fallon, someone on Facebook created an account under the name “Linda Havery.”
A few days later, an e-mail was sent from Haverylinda@yahoo.com to Fire Chief Jon Hannan and Police Chief Rodney Monroe. The email complained about Eschert’s Facebook posts in the aftermath to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
The Observer has not been able to identify a Linda Havery in the Charlotte area.
Eschert – who is white – wrote this Facebook post in late summer: “White guy shot by police yesterday near Ferguson...Where is Obama? Where is Holder? Where is Al Sharpton? Where are Trayvon Martins parents? Where are all the white guys supporters? So WHY is everyone MAKING it a racial issue?!? So tired of hearing it’s a racial thing. If you are a thug and worthless to society, it’s not race – You’re just a waste no matter what religion, race or sex you are!”
The other Eschert Facebook message in question was a posting from a Web site called “Law Enforcement Today.”
“Want to know where racial tension and cultural divide comes from? 794 law enforcement officers have fallen in the Line of Duty since B.H. Obama took office, with no special recognition from the White House. A man robs a convenience store and assaults a cop; the White House sends three representatives to his memorial service.”
Eschert, who earned just under $60,000 annually from the city, said she doesn’t believe the posts are offensive.
“In my opinion, racism is so stupid, and I think that if you commit the crime, you’re a thug,” Eschert said. “I have a cousin who I say is a thug.”
City: No retaliation
In an Oct. 17 letter to Eschert, Fire Chief Hannan said that the city received a complaint from a citizen and that Eschert’s comments “negatively affected the Charlotte Department’s reputation in the community and damaged your credibility and impartiality. Both qualities are vital in the role of a Fire Investigator.”
City Attorney Bob Hagemann denied there was any retaliation against Eschert and said the city had no reason to punish her for bringing attention to the arson building. He said the city has researched the claims that Linda Havery was fake and said “we have no evidence that this email address is tied to a city employee.”
Council member Fallon said she believes the fire department retaliated against Eschert.
“They hunted her down,” Fallon said.
She added that she believes there were significant problems with the arson building.
“Did I think it was habitable? No, I didn’t think it was habitable,” Fallon said.
Granger said Tuesday that the new arson building might have looked bad when Fallon toured it, but it was safe.
Social media policy
In 2013, the Charlotte Fire Department issued a social media policy that prohibited “simultaneously” identifying oneself as a Charlotte Fire Department employee while displaying materials that could “potentially be perceived as offensive, including ... material that offends or harasses on the basis of race, sex, religion, color...”
Meg Maloney, Eschert’s attorney, said the Facebook post did not violate that policy.
Maloney said that Eschert’s Facebook postings were not public and that only her friends with special access to her Facebook page could read them. She also said Eschert’s page did not identify herself as a city firefighter or a public employee.
In the first Linda Havery email, the author wrote that Eschert’s Facebook post was being discussed nationwide.
“Today I seen it on Rev Al Sharpton fan page. As I reading the post, I notice this lady was a CMPD or CFD,” the email said.
Maloney said she has never seen the post on any Sharpton fan page.
The Havery email added that “John Barrett is speaking on this young lady Friday at an event...”
Maloney said that could be an incorrect reference to national civil rights leader John Barrett, who died in 2012.
It’s possible the email was meant to refer to John Barnett of Charlotte, a civil rights activist who founded a group called THUG, True Healing Under God.
Barnett, who is black, told the Observer he had never heard of the Facebook post involving a firefighter. After being read the post, Barnett said he didn’t think Eschert should have been fired.
In an interview with the Observer, Hagemann cited a 2006 federal appeals court decision that upheld New York City’s firing of a police officer and two firefighters for participating in a parade wearing Afro wigs and blackface. According to the New York Times, the three men rode in a truck float that had buckets of fried chicken on the hood, and one man re-enacted the killing of James Byrd Jr., an African-American who was dragged to his death in 1998 in Texas.
Maloney said Eschert’s case and the New York City case are not comparable.
“In one (post) she is posting Law Enforcement Today’s post with no comment,” Maloney said. “In the other she is questioning why does it have to be about race. The city is comparing it to a case where people are trying to incite racial violence. Really?”
Hagemann said the Havery e-mails, and whether they are valid, is not central to Eschert’s termination.
“What does it matter how we found out about it?” Hagemann said.
He noted that citizens often create fake email addresses when requesting public records or to make a complaint about the city.
Maloney said the Havery emails are important because they show there was an effort to undermine Eschert because she was a whistleblower.
Granger, the deputy fire chief, said the city didn’t know Eschert had complained about the building in August. He said anyone can make an anonymous or face-to-face complaint and be treated fairly.
Hagemann said the city does not know of any other employee fired over a social media post. The city said some employees have been disciplined.
Dwayne Collins, a past chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg NAACP and a former president of the Black Political Caucus of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, said he believes the post was insensitive.
“My first reaction is that this person hasn’t looked through the lens of history,” said Collins, noting that Charlotte in the early 1990s had police shootings of black men that weren’t prosecuted. “And to make a blanket condemnation about someone being a thug. Does that justify them being killed?”
But Collins said, as a resident of the city, he would be OK with the employee undergoing sensitivity training and possibly a suspension.
Harvey Gantt was the city’s first African-American mayor, from 1983 to 1987. He said it’s critical that public safety departments have the trust of the community and said he personally found the Facebook post that included the reference to “thugs” as “repugnant.”
“But I’m not sure if it rises to the level of being fired,” Gantt said.
Marty Puckett is the vice president of the Charlotte Fire Fighters Association, which believes the termination was unjust.
“It’s no worse than other stuff I have seen other firefighters say in public posts,” Puckett said.
The association has recently been at odds with fire department management. President Tom Brewer accused Hannan, the fire chief, of trying to “assassinate” his character in a dispute over whether firefighters should be required to take annual physicals.
The city has declined to comment on those allegations.
In 2008, former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Peter Gorman recommended disciplining five teachers for Facebook posts, including termination for one who wrote that “I am teaching in the most ghetto school in Charlotte.” Researcher Maria David contributed to this story.