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Firefighter appeals firing over porn

A lieutenant who ran afoul of St. Pete Beach's zero tolerance policy on pornography decides to fight to get his job back.

By AMY WIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 31, 2001


A lieutenant who ran afoul of St. Pete Beach's zero tolerance policy on pornography decides to fight to get his job back.

ST. PETE BEACH -- The memo was posted in September 2000, instructing firefighters that sexually explicit material had no place in the firehouse.

Not in magazines, not in videos, not in books. And not on the Internet.

"As you have been advised in the past, the possession/use of inappropriate materials in the Fire Department SHALL NOT BE PERMITTED," Fire Chief Fred Golliner wrote, explaining his department would follow a zero tolerance policy on pornography in the workplace.

One year later, the chief has recommended firing the first firefighter accused of violating the policy. Lt. Crist Fellman, a 20-year veteran of the department, will appeal the decision through a grievance procedure.

The investigative report details how an internal affairs investigation, with the help of Florida Department of Law Enforcement computer analysts, linked Fellman to the pornography found on department computers.

The report also showed that, possibly because of the atypical nature of a firehouse workplace, sexually explicit materials were more common around the St. Pete Beach Fire Department than in other workplace environments.

"Unlike other public officials, it is entirely appropriate for firemen on 24-hour shifts, upon the completion of their duties, to watch cable television and/or to use the Internet," Fellman's former lawyer, Morris Weinberg, wrote in a letter to the city requesting Fellman be reinstated.

Fellman's appeal of the city's decision might rely on evidence produced in the city's internal investigation of him. The report, produced by police Capt. Todd Kirchgraber, describes in interviews with employees that two other firefighters might have accessed pornography on the Internet after Golliner's zero tolerance memo was posted a year ago.

"I certainly didn't see any focus being placed on them," said Fellman's lawyer, Robert McKee.

The investigation also discusses how, historically, pornography was accessible in the all-male, 24-hour-a-day environment of the Fire Department, though Golliner is quick to say that it can't be found anymore and hasn't been as prevalent for years.

"I think we're as clean of a department as you can find now," Golliner said.

Still, the past could play a role in Fellman's appeal. "There's a history in the department in terms of a tolerance for adult-related material," McKee said.

Kirchgraber says the investigation stopped with Fellman because he is the only firefighter who can specifically be placed at a Fire Department computer at a time when adult material was accessed.

"This was the first piece of real concrete evidence that came into our hands," Kirchgraber said.

Added Golliner: "We can't get any more thorough with the computer systems. There's no way of placing anyone behind the computer."

That's because Fellman was working a shift with Paramedic Lori Kordecki and Firefighter Ron Nifong when Kordecki went online this summer to work on her St. Petersburg Junior College courses.

Kordecki turned over the use of the computer to Fellman and later returned to the terminal to find pornography Web sites listed in the computer's history file.

Kordecki had previous experiences with adult material at the firehouse. She had discovered pornographic Web sites in the history file before, and had also turned into the chief a pornographic magazine found under a mattress in the firefighter's bunks.

"I was totally disgusted and offended," Kordecki told Kirchgraber in her interview. "I said, 'That's it. I've had it.' "

Kordecki and Nifong saved items from the history file onto the computer's hard drive. That file, which the paramedics named "Stealth," linked Fellman to the adult material.

And while other sexually explicit images were found on firehouse computers -- 308 in all -- none of the others could be directly tied to any individual employee, Kirchgraber said.

The report discusses past experiences with adult material at the firehouse: how firefighters sometimes exchanged adult videos at work and kept pornographic magazines at the department. On at least one occasion mentioned in the report, firefighters viewed an adult movie at work.

Most of these incidents happened before the September 2000 memo. In interviews with Kirchgraber, one firefighter said he recalled a discussion with Fellman shortly after the memo was posted.

"Well, they got most of the books out of here, but I still got mine," Firefighter Greg Fletcher recalled Fellman saying as he lifted up the mattress of the lieutenants' bunk to reveal porn magazines hidden there.

"Times have changed," Kirchgraber said. "Nothing condoned, but understand that what might have been happening, as times changed, as people's standards changed, so does that behavior, and clearly the fire chief was trying to set a standard where those types of things weren't accepted."

Fellman earned more than $49,200 a year from the city. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1995, and his personnel file includes letters from residents complimenting his service.

The file also includes past disciplinary actions.

In 1996, after he transferred some emergency medical technician supplies from the main firehouse in north St. Pete Beach to Station No. 22 in the Pass-a-Grille neighborhood, his supervisor reversed his decision and returned some of the supplies to the north station.

Fellman responded in a terse memo and was reprimanded for writing it. The subject Fellman wrote on his memo was "I should have known!!!!"

"Just once, I would like to see some support around here," he wrote.

He also received "letters of instruction and caution," a low-level form of discipline, for hitting a pole while exiting City Hall with a fire engine and talking disrespectfully to another lieutenant.

The monthslong investigation took a toll on Fellman and his family, his former attorney, Morris Weinberg, wrote in a letter to the fire chief in mid September.

In the letter, Weinberg says Fellman "has had his life turned upside down." Weinberg complained of television newscasts about the investigation that "irreparably damaged" the firefighter's reputation and says his 12-year-old and 8-year-old children were pulled out of classes at school to be interrogated by detectives and the Department of Children and Family Services.

The investigation was ongoing at the time of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and Tropical Storm Gabrielle, which followed days later. According to Weinberg, Fellman's requests to help with both events while on administrative leave were denied.

"A veteran firefighter with such an outstanding record does not deserve the treatment that he and his family have undergone in the past month," Weinberg wrote.

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