A lawsuit filed by two former Mehlville Fire Protection District employees contending they were fired by the Board of Directors for their union leadership activities is “baseless,” according to board Chairman Aaron Hilmer.
Bob Strinni, a firefighter and president of Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, and Jeri Fleschert, a paramedic and secretary of the Local 1889 Executive Board, were fired by the Board of Directors in June for what Mehlville officials termed a violation of the district’s anti-harassment policy.
But in their lawsuit filed last week in federal court in St. Louis, Strinni and Fleschert contend they were terminated as a result of their union leadership activities.
But Hilmer told the Call the allegations in the lawsuit are “baseless. They have nothing to do with why they were fired.”
The Board of Directors voted unanimously during an April 22 open session to adopt a resolution stating an investigation had been initiated “into personnel issues pertaining to workplace intimidation and harassment … Each and every employee of the Mehlville Fire Protection District shall comply with said investigation. If not, each employee may face discipline up to and including termination.”
Board members also voted unanimously April 22 to hire Metro Security to assist in the investigation at a cost of $75 per hour.
The investigation was initiated, Hilmer said, after board members learned an employee’s cell phone had been stolen and the employee then was harassed because of the telephone numbers the phone contained.
Timothy Moore of Metro Security interviewed Mehlville employees, Hilmer said, because “an important part of our investigation was getting third-party corroboration by other union employees making it clear that a hostile and harassing environment existed at the district.”
During an interview with Moore, a district employee discussed specific instances of being harassed by other employees to the point where he eventually requested a transfer to another firehouse. A transcript of that interview with the names of employees redacted was provided to the Call by Mathew Hoffman, the district’s legal counsel.
Asked by Moore about any harassment or intimidation since being employed by the district, the employee replied, “In terms of harassment, I would say it was mainly them trying to figure out where I was coming from, how I got the job and who I am associated with.”
Moore said, “I may occasionally stop you when you say ‘they.’ By ‘they,’ who do you mean? Do you have any names or approximate dates and times?”
The employee responded, “Specifically, the union Executive Board.”
The employee later told Moore he was questioned extensively over his affiliation with Hilmer or a family member’s relationship with Hilmer.
He said he initially denied that the family member knew Hilmer “for the simple fact that I knew everybody hated this guy because he had made cuts at the fire district and they were very upset with him, so I was trying to disassociate myself with the board …”
He again was questioned about his family member’s relationship with Hilmer while performing routine chores at the firehouse.
“… And I denied it for the same reason I did with (redacted). And then he kind of gave me his own personal political views on Hilmer and the Republican Party,” the employee told Moore.
When asked what was said, the employee replied, “Basically how — it’s always the same speech, how Hilmer screwed up a really good thing, how fire medics shouldn’t be here, how they don’t know what they’re doing as far as how can one person be a paramedic and be a firefighter at the same time, and just the normal rant of: How can he make all these cuts and run a successful fire department?”
The employee also said that his personal cell phone “was broken into” in an effort to discover the telephone numbers it contained. Recounting a confrontation with another employee about the cell phone, the employee told Moore: “… (Redacted) did not say ‘I’ went through your phone. (Redacted) said ‘we’ went through your phone. I don’t know who ‘we’ is.”
In requesting the transfer to another firehouse, the employee recalled that he told a superior, “… I feel very uncomfortable working at this house. I said I feel like I’m being set up to fail. I feel like I am being backstabbed and talked about behind my back and I would like to be transferred.”
Moore later asked the employee: “In your own words, would you say that your ability to perform your normal job was hindered as a result of these other ancillary issues that were going on? Were you able to maintain direct focus a hundred percent of the time?”
The employee said, “No.”
Moore continued, “And can you expound on that? Can you explain why that was?”
The employee replied, “It’s just when you’re in an uncomfortable situation and you know people are talking about you, it’s hard to focus on what you need to be focusing on because now your attention is diverted trying to save face all the time. Because there’s rumors going around about you that you have to fix constantly. And when you walk into the mindset that that’s what I’m going to have to do all day is explain myself instead of be here to run calls and serve the people who need our help, it doesn’t provide a good work environment for anybody.
“And it affects your mental capacity on calls because that’s what you’re focusing on because you run calls with different engine houses pretty much on a consistent basis and you’re wondering what that person on that call with you that you’re in the same house with, what have they heard, what are they thinking about me, that type of thing.”
Asked later if he wanted to add anything else, the employee said, “Basically that I was going to let all this go and somehow it got back to the wrong person. But there’s a difference between not saying anything and keeping my mouth shut and being asked a direct question from my boss and lying to him.
“And everything I’ve stated here is 100 percent true because you guys came to me. I have no reason to lie about any of this. I was totally going to let it drop.”
Moore asked the employee: “So this situation inhibits not only your focus on the job, but your ability to earn more money with overtime shifts here and there?”
The employee replied, “Absolutely. I just a got a phone call for overtime on Sunday.
“I’m not going to take it because I know this is going on and I know they were suspended Wednesday (April 23). There’s no freakin’ way I’m going in there.”