Joe is a lieutenant with the city Fire Department here in Meadville, Pennsylvania. The Department is small – only 15 members. And Joe screwed up bigtime. In addition to his firefighter duties, Joe is a state certified fire instructor. He teaches firefighting skills all over the region, through a certification he receives from the State. Joe has just been fired for fraudulently doctoring the training records of a fellow firefighter. In his capacity as a state certified instructor, Joe certified that his colleague attended certain firefighting classes. But he didn’t attend. Joe and his friend cheated and they got caught.
Joe’s only option is to appeal to the city Civil Service Commission. The Commission recently upheld the firing of another firefighter for lying about his residency. We feared the Commission would rubber stamp the city manager.
Our case is all about mitigation. What Joe did is not all that bad. It just looks that way. Joe’s friend already had the skills taught in the classes he skipped. However, a friend acquired his skills through out-of-state training, and Pennsylvania would not accept his credentials. In my office, Joe is scared badly — barely articulate. He has a hell of a time even saying his name. Joe has to testify, and I have to use his abject fear to our advantage.
In my opening, I tell the Commission that I would not offer even one breath of excuse or justification for Joe’s fraud. I told them to throw me out if I did. I told them that I would, however explain why Joe cheated.
At the hearing, the city goes first. The Head State Fire Instructor testifies. This nice guy is 100% honest. On soft cross, he supports my claim that what Joe did was not so bad. He also confirms that the public safety was not threatened. When I was done with my questions, the chairman of the Commission asks the Head Instructor: “On a scale of not bad at all to really bad, where would you rank what Joe did? How bad was it?” As always, I am wearing my medicine pouch. It rests over my heart. I slowly reach for that little bulge under my shirt, gently wrap my hand around the medicine pouch, and speak to all of you. Some might have prayed. I feel like everybody can hear my heart pounding in the silence.
Finally, the Head Instructor answers, “Very low – not bad at all. I understand why Joe did it, and that’s why I only suspended Joe for six months from his State position as an instructor. That’s why I allowed him to continue teaching the class he’s teaching right now. In six months, Joe was eligible to resume teaching for the State.” That is the answer I need. The dam breaks, and I can see understanding and compassion on the faces of the Commissioners. They are asking themselves, “Does Joe deserve to be fired for this?”
The city’s next witness is the Fire Chief – a wonderful man whom I respect highly and probably love. Again, 100% honesty. The Chief is unflappable in defending the decision to fire Joe. No cross-examination there. I press the issue of whether Joe’s offense is job-related. The Fire Chief admits without hesitation that he would absolutely go fight any fire, anytime with Joe – would follow him into a burning building without question. The Chief takes his training courses from Joe. The Chief will still trust Joe to train him. The dam breaks a little further. The Commission sees how valuable Joe is to the Fire Department.
Finally, we get to the city manager – the guy who actually fired Joe. He is very sincere, but cocky. Some arrogance is showing. My only shot is to show he is biased. “You keep tabs on city employees whose real estate taxes are delinquent, isn’t that true?” He admits that he is very concerned about employee taxes. City employees are supposed to set an example for the community. He has a clear recollection that Joe’s property taxes were habitually delinquent. He enjoys saying then agree to Joe about his taxes. So I ask the manager, “Isn’t it true that five years ago you ordered the Fire Chief to make Joe call you, then you threatened to fire Joe for not paying his real estate taxes? Isn’t that true? And isn’t it also true that Joe’s taxes were delinquent because his wife had gotten sick and lost her job?” The city manager loses his previously clear memory. “I deal with a lot of employees. I just don’t remember anything about that.” I pressed, “You’re telling us that you pay very close attention to the tax payments of city employees, but you have no recollection of threatening to fire Joe over his delinquent taxes?” Same lame answer — “I don’t remember anything because there are too many employees to remember those details.” I looked at the Commissioners and the dam broke a little further.
Finally it’s my turn. I put on two-thirds of Joe’s fellow firefighters. Virtually emptied out the firehouse. All of them know exactly what Joe did. I ask them to tell me how they FEEL about things, rather than to tell me facts. Not a single objection. They agree Joe was wrong. No one makes any excuses for Joe. Even so, their trust for Joe is complete. Each one would follow Joe into a burning building any time, and without hesitation put their lives in his hands. Each one confirms that morale at the fire station stinks. Morale is suffering because the city went too far in firing Joe. Everyone wants Joe back.
I put Joe on last. He is scared, contrite, apologetic – honest and real. He does a great job just acknowledging that he was wrong. He says that what he did is not him. He confirms that the city manager threatened to fire him over his real estate taxes when his wife was unemployed and his family income had been dramatically cut.
A couple times when I am questioning Joe, and for a few moments in the really, really brief closing argument I get to make, the emotion I feel for Joe is in my voice. In the small room and confined space we are in, I’m sure my passion and caring for Joe shows. I told the Commission that I kept my promise that I would not utter one word of excuse for what Joe did. And I told them to throw us out and rule against us if I broke that promise.
When I left, I figure we are beaten, because fraud is cheating and it is hard to get people to look beyond the line. Imagine my amazement when I read the decision today. The Civil Service Commission vacated and overruled Joe’s discharge. They remanded back to the city manager, with orders that the worst he can do is to suspend Joe for six months without pay. The Commission found that the city manager abused his discretion in terminating Joe. Abuse of discretion is one of the toughest standards to beat in Pennsylvania – talk about feeling good! A lengthy suspension will still be a huge painful hit for Joe, but if he can hang on, the job will still be there for him.
I could not have won this case without my ability to tune in. To “own” all of the facts, especially the bad ones. To listen to what people were telling me and suggesting – and not assuming I had it all figured out. But first and foremost was caring about Joe and what happened to him. If I had used the old way, with scripted questions, not listening to the answers, I could not have done what my fellow Warriors and TLC helped me to do for Joe. I still can’t figure out how over 1000 of you fit in that little pouch . . .