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    Prank doesn't cost man job

    But the firefighter will be on probation at work for a year and could be prosecuted.

    By CHRIS TISCH

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 11, 2001


    DUNEDIN -- A firefighter-paramedic facing a criminal charge in connection with a firehouse prank will keep his job.

    Jim Sowinski was arrested last month and charged with felony criminal mischief, accused of sneaking into a Dunedin fire station in the early morning and pasting fellow firefighters' lockers with baby powder and shaving cream.

    Sheriff's deputies arrested Sowinski, 30, the next day. The prank caused damage initially estimated at up to $2,500 to firefighters' personal items and firefighting gear.

    Fire department officials launched an internal investigation, in which several charges were sustained that could have triggered Sowinski's firing. But officials recommended that City Manager John Lawrence allow Sowinski to keep his job. Lawrence agreed.

    Deputy Fire Chief Scott Magness said Sowinski has a stellar six-year work record and is considered to have a bright future with the department.

    "The fact is, he has been a good employee," Lawrence, who met with Sowinski before agreeing with the recommendation, said Tuesday. "I think this is a one-time thing. I have a feeling this is going to turn him into an even better employee. This has been a real learning experience for him."

    Magness said Sowinski will face a five-day suspension without pay, which he said probably will be served non-consecutively over the next month. Sowinski worked Saturday for the first time since he was placed on paid administrative leave March 7. He has been paid for 10 shifts he did not work since then, Magness said.

    Neither Sowinski nor his attorney could be reached for comment Tuesday. The criminal case against Sowinski is still pending, though prosecutors have not filed a formal charge against him, according to court records.

    Sowinski said in an interview a few days after his arrest that his act was an innocent prank, payback for fellow firefighters' jokes. He suspected the firefighters of putting spaghetti in his helmet and of wrapping his comforter in duct tape.

    Magness said firefighters are pleased that Sowinski will remain with the department, though he acknowledged "there's some fences that need to be mended."

    "I think none of us are happy over the incident, but I think all of us are feeling positive about the outcome," Magness said. "There's no reason to think it's going to be anything but a real good year for him."

    Magness said he anticipates Sowinski will continue to fill in as a lieutenant, though he will work at a different station and on a different shift than the firefighters who were victimized by the prank.

    But even if they had to work together, "We would still deliver outstanding service to the public," Magness said.

    He said Sowinski will be on probation for a year, which means even a minor infraction could result in his termination.

    Though the incident was a case of poor judgment, Magness said he doesn't believe Sowinski will use that kind of judgment while in the field.

    "We really have nothing but good things to say about the work he's done while serving the public," Magness said.

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