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Attempt to fire 2 firefighters fails

But a videotape that supposedly shows firefighters making lurid comments about women could continue the fire district's troubles.

By ROBERT KING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 10, 2003

SPRING HILL -- An effort to fire two of the Spring Hill firefighters involved in a sex scandal fell short Wednesday night, as did a proposal to reopen what one fire commissioner called a "flawed" investigation of the matter.

Even so, a new twist in the saga -- a videotape that supposedly captures several firefighters making lurid comments about women -- raised the spectre that troubles within the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District may not yet be over.

Fire commissioner Richard Martin wanted Lt. John Ferriero and firefighter Ed Falk fired for their involvement with a woman at a firefighters convention last June.

The woman said she had been raped by Ferriero, Falk and firefighter Tom White. The men said she consented to various sex acts. Prosecutors found insufficient evidence for charges.

But because they were found to have violated fire district policies regarding sexual misconduct and immoral behavior, fire chief J.J. Morrison gave them some of the stiffest penalties handed down in the department's 28-year history.

Falk and White were suspended without pay for two weeks. Ferriero was suspended for four weeks. All three had to forfeit vacation and sick leave time, agree to evaluations by counselors and accept a one-year department probation, among other things.

Already, Falk and White have served their suspensions and have returned to work. Ferriero has less than two weeks remaining on his. All three men have allowed the window for appealing their punishments to pass.

Martin said men in leadership positions -- such as Falk and Ferriero -- should be held to a higher standard because they set an example for the rest of the department. Ferriero, who has a supervisory job, was, until recently, president of the firefighters union. Falk, who is still the union's vice president, was at the top of the list for promotion to lieutenant.

"It is inexcusable conduct for people at that level," Martin said.

Martin drew support only from Commissioner Darryl Hamilton. They lost on a 3-2 vote. Commissioners Jeffrey Hollander, Tommy Marasciullo and Gene Panozzo said the chief's decision to opt for suspensions -- and not termination -- was appropriate given the facts.

Hamilton sought to re-open the department's internal investigation so information that wasn't factored into the punishments could be examined. But that motion died for lack of a second.

Both Hamilton and Martin were critical of the department's handling of the case.

They said fire district officials should have done more of their own work instead of relying almost entirely on sworn statements gathered by prosecutors and police in Seminole County.

They said they don't see how Assistant Chief Bill Davies, who conducted the investigation, and Chief Morrison, who determined the punishment, could fail to interview the woman who made the accusations or to interrogate the three firefighters themselves.

"The process was flawed. The investigation was not complete. People were not interviewed. Things were not traced down," Hamilton said.

Beyond that, Martin asked why fire officials never looked at a videotape the woman shot while making a documentary about firefighters. Martin says he has seen the tape and that it shows firefighters making boorish remarks about women and derogatory comments about former fire commissioner Bob Kanner.

Martin said the tape amounts to evidence of rules violations that haven't previously been considered. Even so, Martin said he doesn't have a copy of the tape and he would not reveal who showed him the tape. He said he is hopeful the tape will be made available soon.

"I think there are lot of people out there who are hoping that tape disappears," he said.

The woman who shot the tape -- the same woman who made the rape accusations -- said she is done with the fire district and investigations and is looking to move from Spring Hill. She said it is possible someone else may turn in a copy of the tape.

Kanner said he knows that a copy is being controlled by someone, and he expects it will soon be made available to the fire district. He is interested because he said he was told it contains negative comments about his wife.

Martin told the audience packed into the board's small meeting room Wednesday that he was "damn embarrassed" by what he saw on the tape, including a firefighter who is heard saying that a female news reporter doesn't wear "skivvies."

During the meeting's citizen comment period, Paul Brosnan stepped up to the microphone and berated Martin for being "vindictive." He also said the fire commission was untrustworthy and bent on exacting a "pound of flesh" from three firefighters who had already been punished.

Jeff Cario, the defense attorney who represents the firefighters union, chided commissioners for imposing their "own morality" by enforcing vague policy rules against immoral behavior and sexual misconduct.

He said said President Clinton escaped punishment from Congress for the same misdeeds. And he said it was "incomprehensible" that the three firefighters are being punished for getting drunk and committing adultery.

Cario, who handles divorce cases too, said if such a punishment were carried out by employers across the land that "nobody could work in this country."

-- Staff writer Robert King covers Spring Hill and can be reached at 848-1432. Send e-mail to .

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