Two Arson Investigators Punished for Speaking Out, Suit Says

By Theola Labbé-DeBose and Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 20, 2009

Two D.C. fire investigators sued the city yesterday, alleging that they were assigned to "menial and demeaning duties" after they complained about the fire department's "mishandling" of possible arson cases, including what they said was a botched probe of the blaze that destroyed the historic Eastern Market on Capitol Hill.

Gregory Bowyer and Gerald Pennington, who have been D.C. firefighters for more than 17 years and were assigned to the arson unit in 2001, alleged that the department "concealed from the public . . . evidence suggesting that a serial arsonist had intentionally set the Eastern Market fire" on April 30, 2007.

In a statement yesterday, Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin called the allegations about Eastern Market "completely baseless." The complaints of retaliation made by Bowyer and Pennington have been referred to the city's inspector general, Rubin said. He said he thinks an investigation "will conclude that these allegations are meritless."

Bowyer and Pennington, who are African American, said that beginning in 2007, when Rubin took the department's top job, race-based staffing decisions in the arson unit resulted in cases being mishandled.

The plaintiffs said Rubin, who is white, sought to add white firefighters to what had been a predominantly African American arson unit. In doing so, the men alleged, he eased the selection criteria, resulting in unqualified people being assigned to investigations.

After they complained to Rubin, the mayor's office, the D.C. Council and the news media about problems in the unit, the men said, their superiors retaliated by "smearing" their reputations and relegating them to "fire hydrant duty, battery installation in residents' fire alarms duty, and passing out snacks to firefighters at fire scenes."

The 24-page complaint, filed in U.S. District Court, accuses the city, Rubin and Deputy Chief Gary Palmer Jr. of violating the District's Whistleblower Protection Act. About a half-dozen African American firefighters joined the plaintiffs and their attorney, David J. Marshall, in announcing the lawsuit at a news conference outside the nearly rebuilt Eastern Market.

Although the cause of the market fire remains officially undetermined, Rubin said shortly after the blaze that he suspected an electrical problem was responsible, and he declared several months later that he was "90 percent" sure of it.

Without citing arson as a possible cause, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives disputed Rubin's opinion, saying in a 2007 report that its investigators did not think an electrical malfunction had caused the fire.

Bowyer and Pennington were not involved in the initial investigation of the fire, but they participated in a follow-up probe, the lawsuit says.

"The department had recently extinguished an unusually large number of fires set in dumpsters within a four-block radius of Eastern Market, including several dumpster fires on the same night as the Eastern Market fire," the lawsuit says. And "several people had seen the fire originate in a dumpster adjacent to the Eastern Market building."

The men said their investigation led to the arrest of a suspect a few weeks after the blaze, but he was released without being charged. The lawsuit says trash fires near the market stopped "immediately upon the suspect's arrest."

Pennington and Bowyer said they were told by a sergeant that evidence of arson was being suppressed because the chief "had already told the media the fire's origin was electrical."

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