The city of Spokane terminated a veteran fire captain last month for threatening a lower-ranking official and for keeping brass knuckles in a city vehicle and storing city-issued guns in a personal safe.
The captain is fighting back.
Kevin Smathers filed a $2.5 million claim this week with the city accusing his Spokane Fire Department bosses of retaliating against him for acting as a whistle-blower.
Smathers said the fire lieutenant, who filed a complaint against him, is the same man who he accused of driving city vehicles while drunk and, on one occasion, armed with a gun. The lieutenant’s name has been redacted from public records.
The firing and subsequent claim is the culmination of two years of back-and-forth accusations between the two men.
“I think it’s a clear case of retaliation against the captain who had the safety of his department and his community in mind,” said Smathers’ attorney Bob Dunn.
Smathers, who has worked for the fire department for 28 years, first reported the lieutenant drove a city vehicle while drunk in May 2011. His complaint said there was no response by Fire Chief Bobby Williams or Assistant Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer. Smathers reported a second drunk driving incident in November of 2011. That time the lieutenant was carrying his gun. He was placed on paid leave.
When the lieutenant returned to work, Smathers reported his relationship with the lieutenant was strained, according to an email sent to Williams in March. Smathers also wrote that a fellow employee had told him the lieutenant was looking for payback.
Dunn said that payback arrived in the form of a written complaint the lieutenant submitted, claiming Smathers had committed several weapons violations. The allegation prompted a six-month investigation.
Fire officials found a set of illegal brass knuckles in his city vehicle, which Smathers claims to have seized while investigating a fire. Smathers claimed he had stored them in his vehicle for safekeeping, then forgot that he’d left them there.
Investigators also found three city weapons in an unapproved personal safe he kept in his city vehicle or his home, according to the report. Smathers, an arson investigator, said there is no gun safe in the Special Investigations Unit office, and that he was forced to keep his weapons in a personal safe.
Smathers later sent the lieutenant an email from his personal account to the lieutenant’s personal account.
The lieutenant interpreted the email as a physical threat, according to the investigation.
“My mission for the remainder of my life is to pay you back for what you did,” Smathers wrote in the email. “Everything I do will be legal and above board; but it will be incredibly painful and life changing for you.”
Smathers said his use of a personal email account kept him from violating city law.
The fire department’s investigation of Smathers described the captain as a man who made his fellow employees uncomfortable. It cited an incident when Smathers began yelling at another employee. Smathers’ actions were so aggressive, according to the report, that they “caused nearby staff members to become fearful and evacuate the office.”
Dunn dismissed the reported behavior as having no bearing on the case.
“The stuff that they’re dragging up is to rationalize what he’d done,” Dunn said. “If he wasn’t a stellar firefighter, how did he become a captain?”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.