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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Report finds harassment, bullying by 5 Spokane firefighters; accused push back on allegations

FILE - A Spokane Fire Department fire engine pulls away from Station No. 1 in downtown Spokane in August 2007. (INGRID BARRENTINE / SR)

An investigation into complaints of bullying and sexual harassment at Spokane Fire Department Station 2 found five officials violated city policies.

Yet the investigation is being criticized as one-sided and thus, incomplete, by those named in the report and the union that represents them.

The city’s Human Resources Department issued a report April 27 following a two-month-long investigation that named Battalion Chiefs Don Waller and Darin Neiwert, and Lts. Patrick Walsh and Daniel Krouse, as well as an unnamed driver with the department. The report says they engaged in workplace bullying and sexual harassment of “probationary employees,” who are workers brought on for a yearlong trial period to determine if they would remain with the department.

Thirty employees were interviewed, many of them former probationary employees who detailed allegations dating back between three and five years.

A sixth employee accused of harassment was cleared of allegations. All of the named men denied the policy violations, and two said Monday they believed the internal investigation was incomplete and its findings ignored several department employees who vouched for their character.

Waller and Walsh worked together at Station 2, located on North Foothills Drive in the Logan neighborhood, during the period when the bullying alleged by multiple witnesses took place. The complaint was brought to human resources by another lieutenant, David Bowers, in February, according to the report.

Witnesses told investigator Jennifer Jackson that Walsh used crude sexual language they found inappropriate. A relative of Bowers, who continues to work in the department and completed part of his probationary period at Station 2, said Walsh would watch women walk by, then ask him if he would have sex with the women using a vulgar term. When the witness didn’t respond, he said Walsh threatened him with moving and setting up ladders for training. Walsh denied the allegations.

“That did not happen,” Walsh is quoted telling Jackson in the report. “Just by reading some of the witness statements, I can guess who they are.”

Other witnesses reported being pleased with their assignment to Station 2, which was known throughout the department as a tough proving ground for young recruits.

Waller, who at the time was a captain but now serves as a battalion chief for the department, was accused by the same witness as Walsh of having a sexually explicit conversation at a station dinner. Waller and Walsh denied the conversation took place, and another witness interviewed by Jackson said he didn’t remember the conversation.

Waller told Jackson he didn’t soften his language at the station, and other witnesses told her that “guy talk” and “off color jokes” were common at the station, leading to the finding that Waller violated the city’s sexual harassment policy that prohibits “sexual comments, innuendos, suggestions, jokes or pressure for sexual favors.”

Waller said Monday he believed the report did not include key facts.

“I believe in the process, and I’m just anxious to get to the Loudermill where the full story can come out,” Waller said, referring to a disciplinary hearing required under the firefighters’ collective bargaining agreement that has not yet been scheduled. “I think the report was based more on emotion than facts at this point.”

Chris Cavanaugh, director of the city’s Human Resources Department, defended Jackson’s work.

“Our standard is, have we done a reasonable investigation, and have we come to a reasonable conclusion,” Cavanaugh said. “We don’t walk into it assuming one party is going to be more plausible. We’re just trying to get as many pieces of the puzzle as we can get.”

The local firefighters union will launch its own investigation into the claims, said Randy Marler, president of the group that represents both the frontline employees as well as higher-ranking members of the department, including captains and lieutenants.

“Some of the information in the report, I think, could have been fact-checked,” Marler said.

Jackson also found that certain reports about probationary employees authored by Walsh and Krouse were “inequitable and unduly harsh.” But written reports about the job performance of those employees were not reviewed as part of the investigation.

Cavanaugh said that was because the investigator was replying on comments from multiple witnesses who said they were constantly threatened about losing their jobs, called names that included “lazy” and “fat” and swearing was commonplace.

“The harsh evaluations were more of the verbal evaluations, and the verbal comments,” Cavanaugh said.

The report sustained an allegation against a driver, whose name was redacted in the final report issued by the city, for referring to a probationary employee as “numb nuts,” a charge the employee admitted using from his days in the U.S. Marine Corps and that he’d stop using it in the future.

Neiwert, the battalion chief, was found to have violated city policies by adopting a name for his fantasy football team called the “Probie Killers,” brought forward by a witness who also said members of Station 2 kept a “bauble (sic) head doll of (Spokane) Fire Chief (Brian) Schaeffer” the witness said was “indicative of the systematic attitude of disrespect at Station 2.”

Neiwert noted that the report didn’t include interviews with the majority of probationary employees who he’d worked with, who may have had a different opinion of him.

“I’ve worked with somewhere around 30 probationary employees, and they only interviewed two of them,” Neiwert said.

Cavanaugh said the Human Resources department had provided the accused, and their bargaining unit, opportunities to provide additional witnesses and information in preparing the report.

“We continue to ask the bargaining unit, if you have any additional information, or additional names, we’d be more than happy to talk to them,” she said.

Any disciplinary action would follow hearings conducted by the fire department.