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The first female battalion chief for the Salt Lake City Fire Department has filed a whistleblower lawsuit in 3rd District Court against the municipality, claiming workplace retaliation for highlighting practices by top brass that include alleged fraud, state fire-code violations and cover-ups.
Martha Ellis, a 21-year veteran firefighter, was demoted May 3 to captain from her previous position of division chief of logistics. She also had served as the city's fire marshal.
The suit says that in March 2015, she uncovered information that suggested the department was allowing members of its executive team to pursue outside endeavors on city time without disclosure or pay reduction.
The complaint also says certain employees were paid for a 40-hour week when they worked three 12-hour shifts.
Further, Ellis' claim states that she received pressure to use her influence to get "a seal of approval" from the department's engineering committee for concrete bike lanes on 300 South that narrowed the roadway, rendering it out of compliance with state fire code. She refused to cover up the "deliberate violation of the state fire code," it states.
Ellis also refused to cover up the lack of smoke detectors in Fire Station 2 prior to a fire there in March 2015, according to the filing.
The legal claim seeks reinstatement of Ellis to her previous position as battalion chief, back pay and benefits. It also seeks unspecified damages for emotional distress, damage to her reputation and loss of enjoyment of life.
City Hall spokesman Matthew Rojas said Wednesday that municipal officials do not comment on pending litigation.
The suit against Salt Lake City also identifies as defendants Mayor Jackie Biskupski, former Fire Chief Brian Dale, interim Chief Karl Lieb and Deputy Chief Robert McMicken.
Wednesday, Jaqualin Peterson, who represents Ellis, said her client had tried unsuccessfully to resolve these issues at every possible level. She said the lawsuit, which followed a previously reported notice of claim, was the last resort.
"This isn't personal," Peterson said. "This is about issues of public interest; how funds are spent and safety issues."
Ellis first complained of possible payroll fraud in a May 2015 letter to the city attorney, and again tried to seek official attention in a September 2015 complaint to the city's Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) program manager,
After Biskupski was elected last November, Ellis notified the mayor-elect of her concerns, according to the suit. She again took her observations to the mayor in January.
Among her claims was that then-Chief Dale was consulting for the Salt Lake City-based International Academies of Emergency Dispatchers (IAED) while on the job for Salt Lake City.
Dale told The Tribune in February that when he was deputy chief, he taught classes at IAED conferences, earning $20,000 to $30,000 annually. As deputy chief, the city paid him a salary of $110,116 and benefits worth $11,116, for a total package of $121,232.
Dale said in his City Council confirmation hearing in May 2015 and later in a Tribune interview that he had not abused his office or broken the public trust.
Dale retired last month. Lieb is acting as interim chief.
On Feb. 21, The Tribune published a story regarding Dale's relationship with IAED. The Tribune brought information to Biskupski, including its finding that in 2012 he spent over 40 days at various conferences, according to his computerized calendar. IAED paid for Dale's travel and expenses at conferences across the United States and in Europe. The organization also paid him for lectures and training sessions.
Biskupski told The Tribune she would look into the information. The newspaper did not receive a further response from her office regarding its findings.
On March 15 three weeks after The Tribune story Ellis was placed on administrative leave and escorted out of the Public Safety Building. According to the suit, her supervisors claimed she demonstrated a lack of engagement with her current work assignment, an inability or unwillingness to follow instructions and a lack of respect for chain of command.
Ellis believed she was being subjected to retaliatory discipline because of her critical comments, the suit said. She was concerned about her reputation and met with Biskupski again March 30 to reiterate her complaints regarding the fire department and its executives' "unlawful behavior."
Nonetheless, Ellis was demoted May 3. She has been on personal leave in the months since.
But, the suit stated, "[T]he fire department and Salt Lake City (presumably with the mayor's acquiescence, since she was fully aware of the allegations and the ongoing proceedings) had already decided upon Ms. Ellis' discipline before actually meeting with her or giving her the opportunity to present her side of the story."
Ellis earlier had filed a federal complaint of sexual discrimination and harassment against the department with the U. S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. That action remains pending.