WESTBROOK - Explosive charges about obscene and discriminatory behavior in the Westbrook Fire Department have been made public for the first time in a lawsuit filed last week against the city by two female firefighters.
A lawsuit and request for a jury trial, filed in Cumberland County Superior Court, claims offensive conduct in the department, including masturbation in the fire station and inappropriate touching of victims while being transported in a rescue vehicle.
The women behind the suit, Kathy Rogers and Lisa Theberge, have been on administrative leave from the department for more than a year due to what Theberge described as "a hostile work environment." Both women filed notices of claim with the city about a year ago, indicating their intent to sue.
Since then, the city conducted an investigation into the complaints made by the women, which resulted in the punishment of seven members of the department. Last month, representatives for the women and the city said they were still trying to get Rogers and Theberge back to work in Westbrook, but, apparently, those efforts have fallen through.
Along with the city of Westbrook, the lawsuit names City Administrator Jerre Bryant and Mayor Bruce Chuluda for their refusal "to take discrimination seriously."
"They are tired of sitting and waiting for the city to act appropriately, month after month after month," Rebecca Webber, attorney for Rogers and Theberge, said Monday, as to why they filed the complaint last week.
Rogers has already settled twice with the city on the basis of similar claims. According to the new complaint, "very little has changed" since then.
"Indeed, in several respects the harassment has gotten worse," the complaint said.
Among other things, the women claim that they have been subject to threats, rumors, isolation and derogatory language.
The mayor's office released a public statement Monday declining to comment on the specific allegations.
"The city had been participating in a mediation process, but that appears to have ended," the statement read.
The women are suing for damages, including loss of wages, mental suffering, humiliation, embarrassment, chilling of constitutional and free speech rights and deprivation of professional and career opportunities. No specific dollar amount is included in the complaint.
So far, the city has spent about $100,000 in overtime pay that can be directly attributed to the absence of the two firefighters. Each shift in the department is staffed by 10 firefighters, and at least nine are required to be working at all times. If one person on Theberge's or Rogers' shift cannot work because of a vacation or illness, the city has to pay another firefighter to work overtime.
The complaint said the women, whose salaries are about $44,000, have lost out on overtime wages themselves, because they haven't been able to work.
Rogers' previous settlements followed favorable decisions from the Maine Human Rights Commission. The most recent settlement in 2004 resulted in the city paying Rogers $76,000 through five years, as well as 540 hours of sick time and $39,000 for legal fees. Rogers, who has been with the department for 19 years, also sued for sexual harassment and reached a settlement in the early 1990s. Theberge, who had not previously brought complaints against the city, has been with the department since 1999.
While there was no investigation completed by the Maine Human Rights Commission, according to the complaint, the commission has given Rogers and Theberge permission to pursue the matter in court. In addition, the complaint said, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has issued notices to the women giving them the right to sue.
In December 2008, seven members of the department were disciplined after the city conducted an investigation into claims made by Rogers and Theberge. The punishments included a letter of reprimand, several two-week suspensions, a 60-day suspension and a demotion.
"That discipline was so inadequate that it sent a message that discrimination will get no more than a slap on the wrist in Westbrook," the complaint said.
Lt. Donald Trafford, who was demoted to firefighter, was the only member of the department to file a grievance with the city after being disciplined. A state arbitration board overturned his demotion and restored his rank in June.
The suit also claims that Rogers was passed over for a promotion based on gender discrimination and that Teamsters Local 340, the firefighters' union, refused to represent either of the women, instead offering free counsel to the firefighters they claimed harassed them.
Howard Reben, the Teamsters' attorney, said when union members are on opposing sides of a complaint, the parties are assigned separate business agents to represent them, which, he said, occurred in this case. However, Reben said, that representation is generally limited to dealing with the grievance and arbitration processes and does not deal with court matters. Apart from working with their business agent, he said, the women have not requested further representation from the union.
The complaint said that, before they went on leave, the women were ostracized from the rest of department and that harassment had been perpetuated by the Teamsters.
"What exists at the City of Westbrook Fire Department is a culture of lawlessness," the complaint said.
Around the time the city punished the seven firefighters, the complaint said, threats were made against the women, which they found out about through other firefighters. Both women are also married to men who work in the department.
One firefighter, the complaint said, told co-workers that Rogers and Theberge "need to head down the road." Another firefighter posted a picture of his son holding a shotgun on his MySpace page and stated that his mood was "betrayed," the complaint said. It also said that equipment had been thrown at Rogers while she was driving a fire truck.
The lawsuit claims that the punishments issued in response to the women's complaints were inconsistent with previous disciplinary measures taken by the city, not related to gender discrimination.
One firefighter, the complaint said, was suspended for 60 days for "masturbation at the fire station, assaulting Theberge by thrusting his privates into Theberge's backside, bragging about feeling up female victims in the rescue vehicle and consistent lewd and threatening conduct."
In comparison, another firefighter who had used an obscenity to insult a male co-worker was demoted from lieutenant and suspended for two months, according to the suit.
The complaint also said that firefighters lied during investigations by the city, and that one firefighter started a rumor that Rogers had been suspended, not placed on administrative leave.
According to the lawsuit, new hires in the department were instructed by other members to avoid and not speak to Rogers and Theberge - behavior supported by department managers and not dealt with by city officials.
The complaint said many of the claims had been reported to managers within in the department throughout the past two years and much of the conduct reported had not been investigated.
The statement issued this week from the mayor's office said that "gender based issues within the Westbrook Fire Department have a long history, including multiple investigations, disciplinary actions and extensive education and training of department personnel."
Pat Dunn, a lawyer for the city, did not return a phone call for comment by American Journal deadline.
Earlier this year, city officials authorized spending $20,000 for the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence to conduct intensified harassment training, which is currently being administered.