City Aims to Put Out Fire Deputy’s Wrongful-Demotion Suit

Recent filings suggest hot heads at the department.

King County Superior Court judge Susan Craighead ruled this week that the city of Seattle will not be granted a new trial in the case of firefighter Mark Jones, who was awarded $12.8 million by a jury last year for injuries he suffered on the job. Jones was later caught on video chopping wood and dancing. But Craighead said the award stands.

While the city lost its bid to reopen one fire case, it is also moving to snuff out another. A former deputy fire chief filed a lawsuit earlier this year, claiming he was demoted by SFD Chief Gregory Dean for blowing the whistle on departmental corruption. In preparation for an Oct. 29 summary judgment hearing, the city has filed sworn statements from fire officials that reveal the drama behind the scenes in the case.

When Fire Marshal Ken Tipler walked into Dean’s office on a fall day in 2008, he was in an emotional state. Months earlier, he’d told Dean about suspected ethical violations by Lt. Milt Footer, who had misused his badge and 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.

When the violations were brought to Dean’s attention, the chief wanted to give Footer just a verbal warning, and refused to transfer him to another assignment. That stuck in the craw of Tipler and others in the marshal’s office. 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, or Tipler would resign on the spot.

“I told him,” Tipler recalls in court papers, “his decision about Footer was making it impossible for me to run my office because I was losing respect and support from my subordinates.”

At that point, Dean and his department were in a tight spot. If the story got out, there’d be headlines about departmental corruption. 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, “you own it,” Dean told Tipler, according to sworn statements. “If there’s a shitstorm, it’s yours.”

Footer later resigned. And the shitstorm came soon enough. Then-Deputy Chief Jim Woodbury, one of the senior members of Tipler’s staff who wanted more severe punishment for Footer, filed a complaint in October 2008 with the city’s Ethics and Elections Commission about the way the Footer case had been handled. In March 2009, the allegations became public when the commission released a report revealing $200,000 in unbilled services and Footer’s demands for backstage passes to a Hannah Montana concert. The report also rapped both Dean and Tipler for not taking sterner disciplinary action.

Three months later, Woodbury filed a lawsuit against SFD, claiming he’d been demoted by Dean to Battalion Chief in January as retaliation.

In newly filed documents, Dean and other top fire officials are united in the assertion that Woodbury was not demoted because of his ethics complaint. City attorney Pete Holmes says “perhaps it is understandable” that Woodbury would think so. However, he says, Dean and the deputy chiefs who approved the demotion were unaware of Woodbury’s at-that-time-confidential complaint.

Woodbury has not yet filed a reply to the city’s motion for summary judgment.

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