Update: In another victory for firefighters against the city, a judge ruled Friday that Jim Woodbury's case can indeed go forward. This comes after another judge upheld the jury verdict in the Mark Jones case.
A King County judge is expected to announce by Monday whether the city will be granted a new trial in the case of disabled Seattle firefighter Mark Jones. He was awarded $12.8 million by a jury last year, but the city's insurer produced a video showing Jones chopping wood and dancing, claiming he faked his injuries. Now a second fire department lawsuit could come to a conclusion as well.
The city is moving to throw out a suit filed by former Deputy Chief (now Battalion Chief) Jim Woodbury, who claims he was demoted by SFD Chief Gregory Dean for blowing the whistle on departmental corruption. In preparation for the Oct. 29 hearing, the city has filed sworn statements from fire officials that reveal for the first time what went on behind the scenes, including concerns about the "shitstorm," as Dean called it, that was about to begin.
When Fire Marshal Ken Tipler walked into Dean's office on a fall day in 2008, for example, he was in an emotional state. Months earlier he'd told Dean about the suspected ethical violations by Lt. Milt Footer. He had misused his badge and also had failed to bill Paul Allen, billionaire owner of the Seahawks, for $200,000 in fire services at Qwest Field.
Footer was stationed at Qwest, his salary paid by Allen's First & Goal company under an unusual arrangement with SFD. In return, Footer gave priority services to Allen.
Dean had wanted to give Footer just a verbal warning, and had refused to transfer the lieutenant to another assignment. That stuck in the craw of Tipler and others in the marshal's office. In a sworn statement, Tippler says the anguish over lack of discipline for Footer even left one female fire official in tears. Dean's disciplinary inaction "caused them to flip out," Tipler says of his staff. "They made comments like 'What good are you?'" forcing him to push harder on Dean.
So on that fall day - Tipler's fourth trip in four months to Dean's office to discuss Footer - Tipler arrived with an ultimatum: Do something about Footer, Tipler told Dean, or Tipler would resign on the spot.
"I told him," Tipler recalls, "his decision about Footer was making it impossible for me to run my office because I was losing respect and support from my subordinates. I told him I was tendering my resignation, effective within two weeks, or sooner if he wanted it."
At that point, Dean and his department were in a tight spot. If the story got out, there'd be headlines about departmental corruption, reflecting badly on SFD and Dean's oversight. Yet, if the issue was kept within the red walls, Tipler's resignation could make it worse, suggesting there'd been a cover-up.
OK, the chief said, Tipler could discipline Footer or transfer him, but not both. And if there was any blowback, the fire marshal would have to endure it. "You own it," Dean told Tipler, according to sworn statements. "If there's a shitstorm, it's yours."
There was indeed a shitstorm, but it was Dean's as well. Woodbury, one of the senior members of the fire marshall's staff who objected to Dean's refusal for more severe punishment, filed a complaint in October 2008 about the Footer incident with the city's Ethics and Elections Commission. That set the ball rolling towards the eventual public disclosure of Footer's actions.
In March last year, the commission released a bombshell report revealing the $200,000 unbilled services and Footer's demand for backstage passes to a Hannah Montana concert. The report also rapped both Dean and Tipler for not taking more stern disciplinary action.
Then last June, Woodbury filed his lawsuit and disclosed publicly that he'd been demoted by Dean in January, four months after he'd blown the whistle on Footer (who eventually resigned).
In newly filed documents, Dean and other top fire officials are united in the belief that Woodbury was not demoted because of his ethics complaint. City attorney Pete Holmes says that "Perhaps it is understandable" that Woodbury claims he was targeted for retaliation. "However, his claim overlooks the fact that his [ethics] complaint was confidential, and that he told no one who made the reduction decision about his complaint." Dean and the deputy chiefs who approved the demotion were unaware of Woodbury's at-the-time confidential complaint, the city says.
Woodbury has not yet filed a reply to the city's motion for summary judgment, which could lead to dismissal of the case for lack of "material issue of fact." The two sides are not discussing the case since it's before the court. But Seattle Fire Fighters union leader Kenny Stuart says he does not consider the Woodbury case, nor the Jones case, indicative of any aggressive effort by City Hall to come down hard on the city's fire-line responders.
"In Mark's case, it's about money," says Stuart. "The insurance company doesn't want to pay, which to me is sickening, and the city has to go along with the challenge or it could end up paying the whole amount. But, for now, I don't think either case indicates the city is out to screw firefighters."