Doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons haunts fire chief candidate 8 years later

WI La Crosse Brian Lee story

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Read La Crosse Tribune article by Anne Jungen

On Friday, a reporter from Wisconsin’s La Crosse Tribune contacted me about one of the more unusual DC Fire & EMS Department stories I covered in 30-years of reporting on the agency. It played out from June, 2009 to January, 2010 and focused on an arrangement I described to reporter Anne Jungen as “gaming the pension system” for the benefit of one person. It has become news again because the man who signed the agreement on behalf of the department, then Assistant Chief Brian Lee, is now a finalist to for the La Crosse fire chief position.

DC Brian Lee
DC Fire & EMS Department photo of Chief Brian Lee upon his retirement in 2016

To this day I can’t tell you why anyone in the District of Columbia government would sign off on such an ethically challenged arrangement. It was an insult to DC’s firefighters and to the taxpayers. If it hadn’t been uncovered by a reporter, the agreement would have made then Deputy Chief Kenneth Ellerbe as much as $600,000 richer. Once the deal was uncovered it should have prevented Ellerbe from later being appointed as chief of the department. Unfortunately it didn’t.

The whole episode was a case of doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons. While there has never been a clear explanation why this deal was made, Jungen’s article shows it still haunts at least one of those involved. Here’s some of the background that’s not in this latest news coverage.

In June of 2009 I received information from a number of DC firefighters that Kenneth Ellerbe, then a DC Fire & EMS Department deputy chief, was a finalist to be chief of Florida’s Sarasota County Fire Department. The tipsters pointed out that Ellerbe would be leaving a lot of pension money on the table if he took this job.

By exiting the department before April 2010, when he turned 50, Ellerbe would have to wait five more years to start receiving his pension. Those calling me were concerned that the politically well-connected Ellerbe would get some sort of deal that allowed him to both take the job and get the maximum pension benefit. The callers pointed out that Ellerbe was close to then DC City Council Chairman Vincent Gray.

DC-Ellerbe-Rubin1
Chief Kenneth Ellerbe (l) & Chief Dennis Rubin

 

To track down this story I called the DC Fire & EMS Department Chief Public Information Officer Alan Etter. Etter called back very quickly with an acknowledgement that Chief Dennis Rubin was aware of talk in the department of a special deal for Deputy Chief Ellerbe. Etter relayed from Chief Rubin a very strong statement that no such special arrangements would be made for Ellerbe or anyone else. It was such an emphatic and clear denial that I stopped pursuing the story. My mistake.

Fast forward to December 14, 2009 and an article by David C. Lipscomb of The Washington Times with the headline “D.C. deputy fire chief also works in Florida.” The story outlined special arrangements for Deputy Chief Kenneth Ellerbe that allowed him to remain an unpaid employee of the DC government while working at a remote job site — Sarasota County, Florida. Sarasota County paid his salary.

Despite the emphatic “no” I received from Dennis Rubin in June a secret deal was made weeks later to allow Kenneth Ellerbe to become the Sarasota County fire chief in July. As you might imagine, I was on the phone quickly with Rubin’s new PIO, Pete Piringer.

Piringer would only acknowledge at that time that Ellerbe was on leave without pay and that Chief Rubin would not be commenting. The next day Chief Rubin and Piringer were at the TV station where I worked. As they departed the building, I attempted what you might call an ambush interview of Chief Rubin. The Rube hustled away from the camera and into his department SUV without saying a word. He left Piringer to answer the questions. Piringer had no real answers other than to refer us to the DC Department of Human Resources. They weren’t talking either.

DC City Council member Phil Mendelson was talking about this situation. He told me, “It smacks of favoritism.” Mendelson believed it also sent the wrong message to the rank and file.

By the next day I was able to determine that Assistant Chief Brian Lee had signed the “Personnel Exhange Agreeement” for the department. The document also had the signatures of Director of Human Resources Brender Gregory and Sarasota County Emergency Services Director Mike Suarez.

Exactly why Assistant Chief Brian Lee signed the agreement after Chief Rubin made it clear this would not happen remains a mystery. At the time, department sources with knowledge of what was going on behind the scenes, claimed Chief Rubin previously refused to sign the agreement and that Brian Lee signed it when Rubin was out of town. The sources indicated that Rubin only became aware in late 2009 that Deputy Chief Ellerbe was still considered a department employee on leave without pay.

The story remained in the news for about a month until it became public that Chief Rubin did the right thing and rescinded the “Personnel Exchange Agreement.” This forced Chief Ellerbe to make a choice — stay as chief in Sarasota County or return as deputy chief in DC.  Ellerbe decided to remain in Florida but was extremely displeased about the arrangement falling through and the loss of about $600,000.

Of course, the story did not end there. In September of 2010 Dennis Rubin’s boss Mayor Adrian Fenty lost his re-election bid. The winner — City Council Chairman Vincent Gray. The Rube announced his departure in December days before Mayor-elect Gray named his new fire chief — Kenneth Ellerbe.

Despite retiring from TV news in June of 2010 I was still interested in how Ellerbe’s “Personnel Exchange Agreement” would impact his nomination as chief. You would think a fire chief candidate recently involved in a public scandal to game the retirement system might have a tough time at his confirmation hearing. Think again.

Phil Mendelson, who said in December 2009 the deal “smacks of favoritism” told The Washington Times in December 2010 he had little concern about such issues and thought Ellerbe was a fine choice.

“I’m interested in a good chief who understands fire suppression, is committed to improving EMS and is going to bring some much-needed management to that department in terms of overtime, discipline, race relations – and that’s what we’re getting,” Mr. Mendelson said.

Anyone familiar with Ellerbe’s more than three year reign as DC Fire and EMS Department chief probably doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry at Mendelson’s statement. Mendelson was the chair of the committee that held Ellerbe’s confirmation hearing. To this day I believe Phil Mendelson’s sudden change of heart and failure to make the pension deal a part of Kenneth Ellerbe’s hearing did great harm to the delivery of fire and EMS services in the District of Columbia. The pension issue should have disqualified Ellerbe from becoming fire chief in DC. In addition, the hearing could have shed light on who was really responsible for making such a bad deal for the District of Columbia.

Upon taking over the department in January 2010, one of Ellerbe’s early moves was to demote a number of Rubin’s appointees. Among them, Assistant Chief Brian Lee.

Chief Lee eventually retired and is now, almost eight years later, still hearing about his signature on one piece of paper.