Internal investigation finds Johnson City fire chief possibly abused subordinate, no harassment

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JOHNSON CITY, TN (WJHL) – As part of an internal investigation into alleged workplace harassment Johnson City firefighters accused Chief Mark Scott of threatening to kill co-workers in the years before he became fire chief and other questionable actions in the five years since.

Within the last year, roughly two dozen firefighters, including supervisors, went on record with concerns about Scott. Many of them mentioned threats, lack of trust and low morale.

An internal investigator captured all of the comments on tape. We requested the audio files through a public records request.

According to public records, the city’s internal investigation did not substantiate workplace harassment, but did find evidence that the chief possibly violated department policy by abusing a subordinate through his use of profanity or abusive language. The internal investigation has also resulted in changes.

It all started with a workplace harassment complaint filed by Lt. Tommy Verran last year, alleging Scott bullied, harassed and threatened him over the course of 25 years. Once a candidate for captain and assistant chief positions, Verran told the city’s investigator he wasn’t happy with the department’s promotion process, but said he and others had more serious concerns.

“I’m just nervous to come to work,” Verran told the internal investigator when interviewed in 2015. “People are fed up and sick and tired of living in tyranny.”

Over the course of several months last year, everyone from rookie firefighters to ranking officers shared their interactions with the chief. Several of them said Scott, a longtime department administrator, has a history of unprofessional behavior.

Years ago, someone sent city administrators a silent video captured of Scott with a bull whip outside the fire department. The video shows Scott and other firefighters apparently laughing, but one of them told the investigator in the moments before that video he saw Scott take the joke to another level.

“I have actually witnessed him chase an employee in the back parking lot with a bull whip,” firefighter Shane Malone said.

Some firefighters said they remember Scott verbally berating and making fun of them, and in the years before he became chief, sometimes far worse.

“We’d be sitting at the dinner table and he’d talk about how he could shoot someone and they’d never hear the gun go off,” Sgt. William Sanders said.

“He did that sometimes jokingly and sometimes serious,” Sgt. Tim Littleton said. “You never knew which way to take it.”

“I’ve seen him reload ammunition and stuff there at work and I’ve heard him tell employees, different people, that I’m putting a little extra in this one for you,” Lt. Eric Hyder said.

To some, the comments seemed harmless. To others, they said Scott’s words were far from harmless.

“When we have a meeting I try to sit closest to the door,” Lt. Hyder said.

“He might say it in a jokingly way, but he means every word of it,” Malone said. “I believe that with 100% of my heart. I don’t feel safe.”

“We didn’t take him serious, but we should have,” Lt. Rick Arnold said.

Throughout the years, firefighters said Scott has acted aggressively at fire scenes, sometimes getting physical.

Since the city manager named him chief in 2011, firefighters said they have not heard death threats, but since 2011 they said other issues caught their attention.

“He’s kind of always out of control,” firefighter Michael Britt said.

Verran, along with Assistant Fire Chief Chris Williams, told the investigator they’ve both heard Scott refer to his newest assistant chief, who previously served as a captain in the department, as “Gomer F****** Pyle.”

“I’ve heard people say that’s what he calls me, but I’ve never heard him call me that,” Assistant Fire Chief Jerome Palmer said.

Several firefighters also questioned his speech to the city’s newest firefighters in February 2015.

“He talked about how he couldn’t wait to get out of the department,” firefighter Matthew Montgomery said.

Several other recruits recounted the meeting.

“The overall tone of the meeting was a negative tone,” firefighter Isaac Culbert said. “It wasn’t something you’d expect as an employee on your first day.”

Like the supposed threats, some rookies saw it as harmless, but others walked away discouraged.

“It wasn’t a good first impression,” Culbert said. “I think we all kind of left kind of shell-shocked.”

“It could have been a little more motivating and positive,” Joshua Baker said. “Instead of being a new beginning for us, it seemed like more of a way out for him.”

It’s no secret many of the firefighters in the department have had their issues with the chief in recent years, but they said he’s always had a fair shot. However, during the chief’s interview with the internal investigator he said he thinks a group of firefighters are mad at him for a variety of things and now want him gone.

“I’m not opposed to feeling there’s an organized approach to move me along,” Scott said. “If they want to hold a grudge against me that’s up to them, but I want to go to sleep at night.”

He said he sleeps well. He said the shooting comments were nothing more than fire hall jokes.

“Was there any seriousness to the threats?” the investigator asked.

“No. Nothing’s happened,” the chief responded. “If I said it, I was kidding about it.”

The chief told the investigator he hasn’t made any of those comments since becoming chief. He said the comments about his new assistant fire chief were never meant to be hurtful.

(Note: The question in this recording is asked in the context of after 2011 or since Scott’s been chief of the fire department.)

“Regretfully so, I said it and Jerome is not that person,” Chief Scott said. “Jerome is a highly intelligent individual. He is happy-go-lucky.”

He said if he ever raised his voice and grabbed firefighters at fire scenes it was all in the interest of trying to fight a fire and keep the public and his employees safe.

“Who don’t yell at a fire scene to get somebody to hear them,” Scott said.

The chief also said he couldn’t recall his comments to the new firefighters, but admitted if he could retire he would. According to a city spokesperson, he’s technically not eligible for full retirement until March 2017 and it doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere before then.

“Absolutely we support the fire chief,” City Manager Pete Peterson said.

“Do you think discipline was warranted in this matter?” we asked.

“No, I do not,” Peterson said. “Chief Scott and I have had a couple of discussions about it. We’ve talked about how we go forward from it at this point.”

A memo reveals the city’s internal investigation did not substantiate workplace harassment, but did find evidence of possible abuse of a subordinate. According to the fire department’s code of conduct, a violation is subject to a written reprimand, a one to five day suspension or a demotion. According to Johnson City officials, the chief received none of the above. The human resources director concluded many of the comments were the result of the fire department’s culture, which he said is similar to that of a locker room.

“Our investigation revealed that many of the accusations, particularly those involving physical contact, could not be substantiated,” Human Resources Director Steve Willis wrote in a memo to Verran. “In regard to some of your claims involving the use of abusive language, many alleged words and phrases were generally supported by employees that were interviewed, but their interpretation of the language was not actual harassment…Some of Chief Scott’s language may be unprofessional in a business office setting, but used in the presence of firefighters that face danger and risk their lives together, it does not rise to an actionable level.”

The city manager said he thinks at all times the chief was joking.

“I’m 100% convinced that’s what it was,” Peterson said. “I do not believe at all that Chief Scott has sincerely threatened anybody.”

“You don’t find those comments unacceptable from a supervisor?” we asked.

“Those types of comments, now that we have a complaint about them, are not acceptable by anyone, including the firefighters,” the city manager said. “Since we now have a complaint, then everyone in the fire hall needs to really be careful about how they act and what they say, because we will not tolerate a hostile work environment or an environment in any of our workplaces that the employees don’t feel comfortable.”

Our investigation revealed this actually isn’t the first time the city’s received a complaint mentioning a threat. Records reveal in 2009 a firefighter said others heard Scott make similar comments. According to city documents, the complaint went unfounded, but the city did warn the chief, even in a joking manner, it wouldn’t be tolerated.

“Mark Scott denied ever having said it,” firefighter Kurt Bennett, the employee who filed the complaint, said.

Despite the past and all of the firefighters’ comments, the city manager said overall, he is not concerned about the department’s leadership.

“The fire chief has done an extraordinary job of increasing the service level to the citizens and our job number one is to ensure we have quality services to the citizens of Johnson City,” Peterson said. “I think the chief has done a really good job of getting more productivity out of the fire bureau and he’s done a really good job of leading the city to enhanced service, better service.”

Peterson said under Scott’s leadership the city’s improved its insurance rating, increased the number of fire inspections, bought millions of dollars’ worth of equipment and implemented the majority of changes an independent public safety study recommended. He said it’s possible a vocal minority is trying to misrepresent the department and use the past to push Chief Scott out.

“I don’t think it’s an epidemic as perhaps some of the folks in the fire bureau would like to present it to be,” Peterson said.

However, when speaking with the Johnson City Professional Firefighters Association, instead of a resounding show of support, there’s mostly silence.

“Does the association support Chief Scott?” we asked the association’s Public Information Officer Christopher Ward.

“I’m not in a position to make that statement,” Ward said after a long pause.

Ward said the internal investigation raised concerns and the association expects some kind of change as a result, especially since in the city’s memo the human resources director promised possible internal actions and structural changes to “improve efficiency, professionalism, and a greater sense of overall accountability.”

“There’s definitely room for improvement,” Ward said. “We’re going to wait and see what the city recommends and form our own opinion at that time.”

In the meantime, he said firefighters are just focused on keeping the public safe.

“We put the City of Johnson City and the residents first,” Ward said.

Eight months after the city mentioned possible changes in its memo, Ward said the association still wasn’t clear what the city was considering.

According to Peterson, the city has updated the department’s requirements for promotion so a firefighter’s career path is crystal clear. He said the city’s created a captain’s position in the fire marshal’s office and is considering adding other supervisory positions, too, plus more training opportunities.

We made multiple attempts to talk with Scott to get his side of the story, but through a city spokesperson he declined an interview.

“There is no doubt that there are many years of animosity built up between some of these employees and Chief Scott,” the internal investigator concluded. “Chief Scott is clearly seen by some as insensitive, brash, over critical, and negative. There is some evidence to support these feelings. Such as the meeting Chief Scott held with the new hires. However, they don’t rise to the level of Harassment.”Copyright 2016 WJHL. All rights reserved.

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