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Fairfax County internal review disputes many claims by battalion chief – but are the findings credible?

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It’s not for me to say if the review of sexual harassment and discrimination claims released yesterday (Tuesday) will satisfy those who work for the Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department. The firefighters and civilian employees of the department will decide themselves if this provides what’s needed to put this issue mostly behind the department as county leadership searches for a new fire chief. But as a taxpayer in the county, I find the report disappointing

News coverage of the review:; The Washington Post; WRC-TV/NBC4; WTTG-TV/FOX5

After two years of very public complaints, the report gives me little confidence sexual harassment and discrimination aren’t a problem in the department. The big issue is the report lacks credibility. That’s because it was done internally and not by an outside, independent investigator.

There was a glimmer of hope for some independence when the report was assigned to County Executive Bryan Hill. Hill was hired from outside the county just 73 days ago. To me, the fact that Bryan Hill doesn’t carry the baggage of recent years was a positive development. The problem is Mr. Hill then assigned the review and report to Deputy County Executive Dave Rohrer.

I’ve known Dave Rohrer for years, covering him when he was police chief and interacting with him over his last six years supervising public safety agencies in Fairfax County. The problem is not Dave Rohrer’s personal credibility (though he’s had his critics through the years, including – at times – me), it’s the optics.

Rohrer is part of the chain of command that deals with these very issues. Fire Chief Richard Bowers, who announced his retirement in the middle of the latest round of bad publicity, reports directly to Rohrer. Rohrer is as responsible for whatever Chief Bowers has or hasn’t done as anyone. He’s been Bowers boss the entire time Bowers has been chief in Fairfax County. This setup is about as far from an independent look at the problems as you can get.

Dave Rohrer’s report focused solely on the recent accusations by Battalion Chief Kathleen Stanley and did not provide a comprehensive review of all the complaints in recent years. Rohrer found merit to three of Stanley’s charges and said the rest were unsubstantiated. While admitting there are some leadership concerns, the report denies there’s widespread sexual harassment and discrimination.

Bryan Hill, in the press conference yesterday (see the video above), said the department has struggled mostly struggled because of leadership and communications issues. Hill also provided some tough talk about dealing with complaints moving forward.

Bryan Hill’s attitude and pledge to change the culture are impressive. What still baffles me is that Hill and the rest of the leadership in Fairfax County can’t see the message they’ve sent in the choices they’ve made to get past this problem. From April of 2016 — when Firefighter Nicole Mittendorff committed suicide — until February 22 of this year, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and Chairman Sharon Bulova supported Chief Bowers and his handling of these issues. They basically allowed the man in charge — whose leadership on sexual harassment and discrimination issues was the subject of complaints and at least one lawsuit — to police and investigate himself. When they finally realized this was failing to win the day, they put the investigation into the hands of his boss, another man who is part of the same power structure.

Yesterday, County Executive Hill said, “Our goal is to be as open and transparent as possible. Period.” If Bryan Hill really wants to reach that goal, he should have everything reviewed by someone who is truly independent — someone who is not part of the Fairfax County government.

The review should include the six lawsuits Hill revealed have been filed over the last 10 years. According to Hill, one of those suits is pending, one was settled and four were dismissed. The county executive admits he didn’t know if there’s some commonality among the lawsuits. That seems to be something a thorough review should evaluate.

I have no problem accepting a finding there’s no widespread harassment and discrimination problem in the Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department. In fact, I would be relieved and extremely happy to know that’s the case. But Sharon Bulova and the Board of Supervisors aren’t going to convince me and many others that’s the truth if they keep allowing the men in charge to conduct their own investigations.

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