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Coming up next: tale of the tapes

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By JEFF WEBB, Hernando Times Editor of Editorials

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 12, 2003


Richard Martin and Darryl Hamilton are a couple of soreheads.

They can't help it. That's just what happens when you spend too much time beating your head against an unmovable object.

Or, in this case, three unmovable objects who also happen to be their colleagues on the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District Commission.

Martin and Hamilton were unable last week to convince their colleagues on the board that two firefighters' union officials, found in violation of department policies by having sex with a drunken college student at a convention last June, should be fired. Martin and Hamilton contend that the punishments -- suspensions, forfeiture of vacation and sick leave, mandatory counseling and probation -- were insufficient for former union president John Ferriero and vice president Eddie Falk.

A third firefighter, Tommy White, also had sex with the girl and was disciplined by Chief J.J. Morrison. But his involvement apparently was more of a follow-the-leader scenario, and because he did not have a leadership position in the union, was not judged as harshly as his crude cohorts.

Martin and Hamilton are correct, of course. Both firefighters should have lost their jobs. Not just because they violated department policies regarding sexual misconduct and immoral behavior, but because they discredited the fire district and their union brothers and sisters, and wasted taxpayers money.

The only reason they weren't fired is because of a benevolent boss, Morrison, who used the secondhand findings of a consultant's superficial investigation as the pretext for pulling the trigger on his buddies.

But at Wednesday night's meeting, Martin and Hamilton were outnumbered 3-2 by union lackeys Tommy "Blame the Victim" Marasciullo and Gene "Blame the Media" Panozzo. The fifth commissioner, and the deciding vote in this instance, Jeff Hollander, wasn't previously known for carrying water for the union, but he did a fine job toting it this time.

Most folks anticipated Wednesday night's outcome would bring an end to this six-month scandal. The firefighters weathered a criminal investigation and took their medicine for violating department policies. No doubt, they, the commissioners and the fire chief were counting on putting this behind them.

But no sooner had one scandal been put to rest, then another, loosely related one took its place.

While criticizing the lack of depth and detail of the fire district's investigation into the policy violations, commissioner Martin disclosed that he had recently viewed one or more videotapes the alleged rape victim made while filming a documentary about the firefighters and before they took advantage of her. On the tapes, Martin said, are more examples of firefighters making sexist, foul-mouthed remarks about women, as well as a fire commissioner and his wife.

The tape proves, Martin said, that degrading women is a pattern among some firefighters. He did not name names, but in notes Martin made for his presentation Wednesday night, he attributed certain comments to Ferriero and Falk. There is speculation that at least one more high-ranking union official is caught on tape.

Martin would not disclose who showed him the tape. But there are lots of folks who would like to see it, so it's reasonable to expect the supply will satisfy the demand fairly soon.

When that happens, it probably will result in yet another lengthy investigation into policy violations, and it could involve some of the same employees who were only one vote away from being fired Wednesday night.

Even if you don't agree that Falk and Ferriero should have been fired, objective thinkers will recognize that the process used to spare them was, as Martin termed it, "flawed" because it relied almost entirely on other agencies' findings. Martin and Hamilton did not deserve the beating they endured for making that point, and for continuing to express indignation about the firefighters' behavior.

Fire district taxpayers should be pleased that at least two of their commissioners are being hardheaded on this issue. Depending on what the videotapes depict, it could be their three colleagues who wind up with headaches.

-- Jeff Webb can be reached at 754-6123, or webb@sptimes.com.

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