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‘Discrimination, harassment’ among findings of inquiry into PG Fire, EMS

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Several employees treated in ‘unfair, demeaning, humiliating fashion,’ FOIA request reveals

Editor’s Note: This is an ongoing story The Prince George Journal will continue to follow. Next week, county leaders share their thoughts on the findings and how they are working to implement recommendations

PRINCE GEORGE – Documents obtained by The Prince George Journal through a Freedom of Information Act request pertaining to a recently completed inquiry into Prince George County Fire and EMS showed internal investigators found a number of significant issues in the department, including bullying, harassment, and discrimination, among others.

Last week’s FOIA request, fulfilled by the Prince George County Attorney’s Office, led by Daniel Whitten, brought two key documents to public view, one that detailed the findings of an internal investigation into the county’s fire and EMS department, while another document shared over two dozen recommendations to address the issues uncovered during that investigation.

Nearly two weeks ago, Whitten, along with several other key members of the county’s leadership, namely County Administrator Percy Ashcraft, Fire and EMS Director Brad Owens, and Board of Supervisors Chairman Donald Hunter, were asked to respond to allegations of discrimination, sexual harassment, overtime padding, and inequity in the treatment of volunteer members of the department when compared to their paid counterparts.

Neither Ashcraft or Owens were able to comment as the county board of supervisors directed Whitten to serve as a spokesperson on any matters related to the claims levied against the department.

At the time of The Prince George Journal’s interview with both Whitten and Hunter, the county attorney was unable to confirm or deny if an investigation into the department was either ongoing or completed or if the county had received complaints matching or similar to the allegations detailed in a letter provided to the newspaper.

“Whenever the county receives concerns or allegations regarding any department, we do look into them further but, as far as whether we have heard of any of these concerns, I would have to say that is a personnel matter and that would be confidential,” the county attorney said in late February, citing portions of Virginia’s FOIA laws that exempts documents pertaining to ongoing administrative investigations and those relating investigations into individual discrimination complaints.

“We do address every concern that we hear and make sure we fully vet any issue that is brought forward to our attention,” Whitten continued.

Last week, through consultation with the county board of supervisors, the county attorney confirmed the investigation into the claims had been completed, with his office responding to The Prince George Journal’s FOIA request for documents pertaining to the matter shortly after.

While largely viewable, an attached letter from Whitten explained parts of the documents were redacted as records “relating to personnel information concerning identifiable individuals and written advice of legal counsel” were exempt from the tenets of the state’s FOIA laws.

According to the document that detailed the findings of the county’s internal investigation, the board of supervisors “directed the County Attorney’s Office, in conjunction with the Director of Human Resources, to interview past and present, part and full time, employees” of Prince George Fire and EMS in order to “[assess] the operations of the department.”

The report provided to county leaders said “many individuals expressed fear of retribution, even those who no longer work for the county” as they shared their experiences with the investigative body, with names being intentionally omitted from the document to protect their identity.

To that end, the document suggests those interviewed spoke candidly and recounted their own experiences while working with Prince George Fire and EMS.

“The findings … detail that several employees were treated in an unfair, and in some instances, demeaning and humiliating fashion,” the report stated, noting their findings have, “for the most part, been corroborated by more than one person” and certain statement, but not all, had been “independently investigated or specifically verified.”

The report lists eight “prevailing themes in the department,” specifically, “dysfunction, favoritism, significant safety concerns, volunteers not [being] held to the same standards as career staff, capricious disciplinary action, discrimination, harassment and bullying, and arrogance.”

From there, over a dozen issues within Prince George Fire and EMS were detailed as part of their investigative findings, the majority of which were related to human resources, with findings of improper hiring, promotions, and certifications, along with problems with evaluations and “possible falsification of evaluation records.”

In addition, the county’s internal investigation found “misuse of [the] chain of command,” specifically listing the First Amendment next to it.

In Whitten’s interview with The Prince George Journal, the county attorney pointed to the First Amendment and Virginia Code Section 15.2-1512.4 when presented with allegations detailed in a letter to the newspaper that some department employees were “discouraged by mid-level operational supervisors from seeking information” related to the investigation, with some being told “they were forbidden from meeting or talking with any of the Board of Supervisors members, under penalty of insubordination.”

“Under Virginia Code, any employee is allowed to talk to their board member and talk about matters of public concern and the employee has that right so they couldn’t be told that they can’t go to board of supervisors members to discuss matters of public concern,” Whitten said in February. “They can go directly, they can go to a board meeting and speak at the public comment period but, if it regards a matter of public concern, it kind of falls under the First Amendment and the right to talk to your elected official.”

According to the report, discrimination on the basis of race and gender were found through the county’s investigation, which echoed concerns levied against the department in the correspondence sent to The Prince George Journal, which claimed some part-time employees were intentionally not scheduled for shifts “due to selective discrimination of gender, personal feelings, or lack of interest in advances from supervisors.”

In addition, improper discipline, which included terminations, record keeping problems, “unlawful use of resources,” “distribution of personnel in terms of certifications and training,” and “interference with future employers” were all listed in the county’s investigative findings.

That report also listed access and apparent misuse of overtime as being additional issues within the department, along with safety issues, such as general staffing problems, equipment being out-of-date, access to equipment and apparatus, and “incident protocols, including management and accountability.”

According to the three-page report, during the course of the county’s investigation, “it became apparent that there may be one or more former employees who will assert legal claims against Prince George County as a result of prior actions by employees of the Department that did not comply with the law.”

“The County Attorney’s Office will work to reduce the County’s exposure and resolve any claims in a cost-effective manner, while also vigorously defending the County and protecting the interests of the Board of Supervisors,” the report detailed, adding, “The decision whether or not to take disciplinary action against an employee rests with the County Administrator. The County Attorney’s Office will assist the County Administrator as needed in this regard.”

While swaths of information have been redacted, a series of recommendations were made across several parts of the department’s operations.

In regards to hiring, “all hiring panels seated to interview candidates for Captain and Lieutenant will include a Deputy County Administrator,” such as Betsy Drewry, Jeff Stoke, or Julie Walton. Additionally, “no employee of equal or lower rank will be on a panel for a position of higher rank” and, once the second interview concludes, “all notes, criteria, grading, and hiring justification shall be shared with the Director of Human Resources and the County Administrator.”

After problems with departmental evaluations and “possible falsification of evaluation records,” it was recommended by investigators that all Fire and EMS supervisors, including Director Brad Owens receive “extensive training … on the proper way to conduct a performance evaluation.” Additionally, those evaluations aren’t to be placed in a personnel file without first being reviewed by the director “to ensure the evaluation was done properly and signed off on.”

Supervisors will also be “held accountable for conducting evaluations on time and in the proper manner.”

While largely redacted, overtime within the department is addressed in the recommendations, with the publicly available passage noting, “The County Administrator will review the allocation of overtime on a monthly basis to ensure that it is cost-effective.”

The county’s human resources department and the county attorney’s office will assist the director in the handling of employee discipline, with the phrase “managing out” being banned from use by the director or any supervisor within the department. Furthermore, “no employee shall be targeted for disciplinary action; all such documentation shall be shared with the director.”

To that end, employees will be notified when a document is placed in their personnel file and will have access to their file at their request. Additionally, “A different set of files will not be kept at any venue that differs with that contained in Human Resources.”

The recommendations also call for “extensive training” on the topics of workplace discrimination and diversity to be given to all of the department’s employees, including the director, along with sexual harassment and diversity training being required for all new hires and provided annually to all staff.

Going further, following allegations of race and gender discrimination and some part-time employees being denied shifts as a result, documents show “equal pay will be given to equal job responsibilities based on experience and certifications,” with the county’s human resources department reviewing “any inequities, and recommendations may be made to provide ‘back pay’ to those who may not have been paid properly.”

The latter-half of the recommendations focus on safety concerns and “issues involving members of volunteer companies.” According to the county’s report, it was advised that all volunteers at a scene “[wear] proper attire and footwear,” and “the required gear at a fire scene.”

Volunteers driving their personal vehicles to an incident scene on the interstate would not be permitted “unless they are the first to arrive on the scene” and they are prohibited from showing up to an incident site under the influence of alcohol.

Additionally, the department would need to create and implement a system for identifying all responders at a scene “as soon as possible, but not later than July 1, 2020.”

The document goes on to recommend, along with supervision at an incident scene between volunteers and career staff, that efforts be made to ensure “no medical procedures are applied at the scene by individuals not holding proper certifications to do so.” It was also proposed that the incident command policy be “immediately revised to ensure that once career staff arrives on scene, the most qualified person shall take command of the scene.”

In one of the final recommendations, if the board of supervisors approves County Administrator Ashcraft’s budget request for a deputy fire and EMS director, it is suggested that the hiring process for that position “begin immediately to offer professional expertise in operating the Fire and EMS Department,” noting the request had been made “at least three times” by the county’s fire and EMS advisory board.

The document concludes by leaving the door open for additional recommendations regarding the county’s fire and EMS volunteers, suggesting future discussions with the board of supervisors on the matter “in the near future.”

In total, while 26 recommendations were listed in the report, four were partially redacted and 15 were completely redacted from public view due to the provisions of the state’s FOIA laws.