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Documents Show Deerfield Firefighters Short-Armed Internal Investigation

It wasn't exactly Watergate, but for Deerfield Beach, it had the makings of a defining moment in its scandal-plagued history: firefighters accused by residents of engaging in improper political activities during the final, frenzied week of the city's municipal elections in March. With a new mayor and two new commissioners, would the city dare to demand accountability from the powerful Deerfield Beach Department of Fire and Rescue?

No. Not judging by the records that made up the investigation of that incident. And not judging by the reaction -- or lack thereof -- from city leaders.

To review, at least two Deerfield Beach residents, Tom Connick and Bett Willett, observed that on March 4, firefighters were using the city's Station 4 as a base for political campaigning. It was hard to tell which among them were working and which were campaigning, as Connick described in the email that started the investigation.

The most obvious flaw in the city's response was allowing the department to investigate itself. Clearly, if there's shred of truth to the station-as-campaign-base allegation, then station higher-ups are responsible, and they have an incentive to cover it up.

Following the reports by Willett and Connick, fire officials dashed off a memo expressly forbidding personnel from engaging in the kinds of activities the witnesses claim they observed. So in the weeks to follow, when the lead investigator, Assistant Chief Robert Weech, sat down with the firefighters, they all knew the best answer to his questions.

The records indicate Weech asked each of his interviewees the same eight questions, each of which were helpfully phrased so they could be dealt with in a single syllable. Usually "No." So instead of asking the firefighters open-ended questions about what observations they recall from the day in question, they were asked "Did you see anyone use city property for campaigning purposes?"

The interviews were not taped or transcribed. Rather, it appears that Weech simply recorded the firefighter's answer with pencil scratches in the margins of his questionnaire. Again, mostly, "no."

In all, 22 firefighters were interviewed over the course of three months, but to keep the firefighters from collaborating on their story, Weech warned each of them not to discuss their interviews with other firefighters. Sure. Aside from the pending investigation that they committed ethical improprieties, why should we worry that they would commit another ethical impropriety?

Weech didn't even bother with any questions that could implicate the department brass. For instance, it might be interesting to learn what, if any, admonishments were made by Chief Anthony Stravino at the outset of the campaign to ensure that his firefighters kept their political activity private and completely separate from their public responsibilities?

Of course, not all of the firefighters could be completely absolved. During an inspection of the station, City Manager Mike Mahaney and City Attorney Andy Maurodis discovered a pile of campaign material themselves. Firefighter Bill Wright Jr. pulled the short straw, it seems, confessing that he had put the signs there. The station commander at the time had no easy alibi, so Capt. Regis Smeltz was also among those disciplined. A few others admitted to wearing firefighter-issue pants while campaigning. Weech ordered the six firefighters to receive counseling as punishment. They all kept their jobs.

But what might be even more galling is how credulously the city itself accepted Weech's investigative findings, which he summarized in this one-page memo. It contained no explanation for how the investigation's integrity was preserved, despite a slew of conflicting interests on the investigators' part. And why not? Seems no one in Deerfield Beach government bothered to challenge it.

Mind you, this in a city whose mayor, Peggy Noland, married a firefighter and whose son Thomas Noland is a firefighter who later in that same week of March was caught by police vandalizing the mayoral campaign signs that didn't contain his mother's name. (The basis for another investigation, Thomas Noland was sentenced to a $250 fine and an apology, but he kept his city job.) What's more, Peggy Noland has admitted that she committed an ethical faux pas when as a commissioner she voted on a firefighter pension plan so expensive the city could go broke trying to pay it.

Given all that, the city should be watching its Fire Department like a hawk. Instead, it's tying on a blindfold.

They're available for residents and journalists too. I had a pending public-records request for the Fire Department's investigative findings, but when I phoned in June for an update, I didn't hear back -- as I mentioned in this post. So it's surprising that when the investigation wrapped up that same month, the city forgot my request and didn't produce the investigation's results -- again, that one-page memo -- till a month after it had ended. Then, seeking to learn actual details about how the investigation was conducted, I phoned Stravino and Weech. They didn't take my calls. They didn't return my messages. Having no other recourse, I filed a public-records request for the investigative materials. Again, more weeks passed, only to learn that the department was asking an exorbitant fee for the labor involved in gathering those documents. For another few days, I haggled with the city until finally I was able to sit down with the file yesterday.

Point being that the Deerfield firefighters apparently aren't too keen on close inspection. And that it's pretty shameful that Deerfield's elected officials -- who have much, much more at stake than a blogger like me -- don't have the gumption to do this crap themselves.

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Thomas Francis

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