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Feds sue city over HFD sex discrimination claims

Yikes.

The Justice Department has sued the city of Houston over sex discrimination claims launched by two female firefighters who say their male coworkers tormented them by urinating on the women’s bathroom walls and sinks and scrawling vulgar slurs on their belongings.

Male firefighters allegedly turned off the cold water in showers to scald their female coworkers and disconnected speakers to prevent women from responding to calls in a string of bad behavior that eventually escalated to death threats, according to the lawsuit.

“Far too often, women are targeted and harassed in the workplace because of their sex,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore of the Civil Rights Division. “Employees have the right to work in an environment that is free from sex discrimination and retaliation.”

The conduct continued over time despite at least nine complaints to management, which failed to remedy the situation and allegedly created a hostile work environment for firefighters Jane Draycott and Paula Keyes.

The city did not comment on the suit, while the firefighters’ union pushed to see more evidence released in the case and decried long-standing criticism of the department.

“Dozens of firefighters cooperated in the various investigations of this incident, but unfounded criticism of Houston firefighters has continued for years,” Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton said.

[…]

Representatives from the firefighters’ union said the lawsuit underscored the need for city officials to make public the findings of an investigation involving 40 firefighters that were polygraphed and who gave sworn statements or handwriting samples during the investigation.

“From the beginning of this controversy, Houston firefighters have wanted the perpetrator(s) of the incidents at Station 54 found and punished appropriately,” Lancton said, in an emailed statement.

The union leader emphasized that the firefighters exonerated in the course of the investigation deserved to be recognized as such.

“Former Mayor Annise Parker rightly said in 2010 that Houston firefighters were ‘unjustly under a cloud.’ Eight years later, the cloud remains,” he said.

“The time has come for authorities to release all of the evidence in this case. Without a proper conclusion, the unjust ‘cloud’ will undermine a basic tenet of our justice system – innocent until proven guilty.”

The city has since announced that it will defend itself and that it “does not tolerate any form of discrimination or harassment”; you can see the city’s statement here. I thought I’d written more about this in the past, but this is the only post that I can find.

The behaviors alleged are terrible and disgusting. I can’t imagine what it was like to be Jane Draycott or Paula Keyes. The fact that a city investigation failed to find the perpetrators – the story also referenced an unsuccessful FBI investigation – is greatly disheartening, and I think the key to this. Because while it may be the case that “dozens of firefighters cooperated” in those investigations, the one thing that I know to be true is that it is firefighters who did these vile acts, and firefighters who know who did them. And neither the guilty parties nor their buddies, who surely know who they are and what they did, came forward to admit any of it.

So while there is a cloud over the department, it is for that reason that I disagree that it is “unjust”. I guarantee you, there are plenty of firefighters who know who did what and when. Maybe that information exists in the city OIG report, but it doesn’t really matter. Nothing is stopping the firefighters who know the truth from coming forward on their own and telling it. And please, don’t tell me that it would be hard or that they would put themselves at risk or anything like that. It was hard for Jane Draycott and Paula Keyes. Jane Draycott and Paula Keyes put themselves at significant risk, and they very much felt the consequences for that. The firefighters who know the truth can damn well deal with it.

So sure, the city should release its report. Maybe it will tell us things we don’t already know. But some people could tell us even more than that. It’s time they started. The #MeToo movement is ultimately about work, and the women who have been denied the opportunity to do the work they want to do, not just by the lowlifes who harass them but by those who stood by and stayed silent as it was happening. Now, at long last, is HFD’s chance to do something about that. Courthouse News, which has a copy of the lawsuit, has more.

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8 Comments

  1. Steve Houston says:

    Right or wrong, it seems that just about everyone at HFD believes Ms. Draycott staged the entire thing, so while something did happen, she quickly became a suspect and was never cleared. That is why the union keeps demanding the investigation be made public. How many sexual harassment cases does the FBI investigate for cities anyway? To make her go away, they gave her a pension and now she’s well known for her criminal exploits.

    From Courthouse news: “During the roll-call meeting, Draycott broke down in tears as several firefighters and a captain read statements saying they did not want her back because they thought she was mentally unstable and would file complaints against them, according to the lawsuit. Draycott went back on leave after the meeting. In late 2010, at the request of the city’s legal department, a clinical psychologist evaluated Draycott and reported in February 2011 that she was “psychologically unable to perform her duties as a firefighter presently or in the future,” the complaint states. The feds say Draycott filed an application for medical retirement, which was approved after another psychiatrist also found she was not mentally fit to be a firefighter.”

    So all parties agreed she was not mentally fit to serve. What could the city have done differently?

  2. Robbie Westmoreland says:

    Polygraphs? Seriously?
    Were tea leaves and the entrails of sacrificial animals unavailable?

  3. Bill Daniels says:

    I want to know why the DoJ is involved in this. Do they have some evidence that wasn’t available to the city investigators? It sure sounds like at best, these women couldn’t prove their case, and at worst, they created the whole thing in search of a payday, which it looks like at least one of them actually got.

    I’d be happy to collect a full pension I didn’t earn.

    Shouldn’t Sleepy Jeff be out busting people caught with dime bags?

  4. Jason Hochman says:

    I used to support the Fired Department, however, this past weekend, I tried to talk to two members of it, and they were rude and stupid shoulder shruggers like every other city employee. That made me remember the time that two fire engines speeding to a false alarm refused to yield to each other and crashed at Westheimer and Dunlavy, injuring scores, killing a bicyclist, and destroying millions of dollars of fire fighting equipment.

    It is good to see that federal authorities are involved, because asking the city to police itself is not viable. Federal courts have put restraining orders on the anti homeless laws, the Fantasy Plaza harassment, and are now involved in this suit. The city is often in the wrong. I have asked the city council to impeach Mayor Turner, due to the HUD finding that he is practicing segregation, and defends the indefensible, clearly a violation of Chapter 17 of the city code. No luck though, so I wonder if they also endorse segregation.

  5. Bill Daniels says:

    Kuff,

    You are making a BIG assumption that whatever was alleged was not a false flag attack. Have you considered the fact that after a bunch of investigation came up with bupkis, maybe one or both of the women were the ones lying about it? The white lady involved went on to commit some crimes, IIRC. Hardly a paragon of virtue.

    The only actual evidence of any malfeasance was the vandalism, and that could very well have been done by the ‘victims.’ We’ve seen that kind of thing a lot. Remember the mosque in West Houston that got torched by one if its own members?

    This whole thing sounds a lot like “hands up don’t shoot.” After exhaustive investigation, it turned out THAT was a lie.

    The firefighters implicated deserve to have this resolved, and they shouldn’t face negative consequences like the Ferguson cop, if they haven’t done anything wrong.

  6. Steve Houston says:

    Bill, the DOJ just launched a new initiative and Houston won first place:
    From the DOJ website: “The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division today announced a second initiative to combat sexual harassment; the effort announced today—the Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Initiative (SHWI)—focuses on workplace sexual harassment in the public sector.

    The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division enforces Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 against state and local government employers. The law prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, and religion. Sexual harassment is among the conduct prohibited by the law because it is a form of sex discrimination.

    The Justice Department will also announce its first enforcement action brought under the SHWI. The Justice Department will file a lawsuit against the City of Houston, alleging that the Houston Fire Department (HFD) discriminated against two female firefighters on the basis of sex in violation of Title VII when it allowed them to be subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace.”

    From media website comments, it sounds like the only acceptable solution to them is firing every male that worked at Station 54, regardless of proof, and anyone up the chain of command that touched the matter, though many have already retired since it’s taken so long. With the backing of the DOJ to pressure the city into settling, the accusers and their lawyers will shoot for the moon but no new evidence was announced. I’m interested in reading the existing investigative reports from the FBI and OIG given just how adamant the union is for their release. Whoever did what in this matter, I don’t see Ms Draycott admitting she created the whole thing any more than any of the males stepping up to admit guilt, even if some parts of it were just stupid pranks.

  7. Robbie Westmoreland says:

    Well, I’ve read the complaint, and, unsurprisingly for a case brought by a Republican Department of Justice, there’s a lot to it that suggests that the City really screwed up in addressing a serious problem at that station. A problem that had existed for several years before the two women who finally filed EEOC complaints were assigned there.

    If the City thinks it can defend against the suit, then it must have ways of contesting the allegations, but his isn’t a weak case.

  8. Robbie Westmoreland says:

    https://www.justice.gov/opa/press-release/file/1040081/download
    The complaint for those interested.

    I’ll watch for the City’s answer.
    Still can’t believe that they used polygraphs in the investigation. What a farce.