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East Lake Fire Rescue faces questions over race investigation

EAST LAKE — Moments before East Lake fire Lt. Bill Figueredo was publicly stripped of his rank for alleged racial slurs, he tried to raise questions about an accuser's credibility by reading aloud two text messages.

The first showed a photo of a black man popping out of a brown box.

"Thanks for the gift," it reads. "But I am sending it back it won't f------ work."

The other text message, showing a naked woman with her hair wrapped in a towel, reads, "Not all towel heads are bad!!"

Fire Chief Tom Jamison condemned the messages last week but told the Tampa Bay Times he likely wouldn't punish the sender — Lt. James Finley — because the messages were sent when Finley was off duty.

"We don't govern our firefighters seven days per week, 365 days per year," said Jamison, who later followed up with an email confirming Finley was off duty.

But attendance records show Finley was on duty Dec. 20, the day he sent one of the texts.

"I thought it was the 25th it was sent," Jamison said, when asked about the discrepancy Tuesday. "If it was the 20th, (Finley) was on duty the 20th."

Jamison said he hasn't looked into when the second message was sent.

Asked whether he would investigate Finley further, Jamison said, "That's not appropriate for me to comment on at this time."

Finley did not respond to a phone message left with a woman at his house.

The incident raises questions about the way East Lake Fire Rescue is handling accusations of racism that were made public last week at a meeting of the East Lake Fire Commission, an elected body that oversees the Fire Department's 40 or so employees and $4.2 million budget.

At the urging of Jamison, commissioners voted to demote Figueredo — a Cuban-American and the department's only minority — from lieutenant to driver and docked his pay about $5,000 per year.

The demotion followed a scathing letter to Jamison by Mark Weinkrantz, who chairs the commission, that accused Figueredo of giving him a Nazi salute.

Finley also said he overheard Figueredo make a Jewish slur on Dec. 20 — the same day Finley sent out a racially charged text.

Figueredo, however, told commissioners he is not the perpetrator but the victim of racist comments. He said Finley and Weinkrantz have harassed him for being Hispanic, calling him a "dirty Mexican" and a "dirty Puerto Rican," among other slurs, he said.

During last week's meeting, Figueredo also held up a pair of pink dumbbells and said Weinkrantz delivered the eight-pound weights to the office and called him a derogatory term for homosexuals. Weinkrantz admitted giving the dumbbells, but denied the harassing comments.

Commissioners said they demoted Figueredo based on Jamison's recommendation and an investigation he conducted. But the investigation, a two-question survey that went out to firefighters, mostly seemed to suggest Figueredo hadn't done anything wrong.

Firefighters were asked if they had ever seen Figueredo use improper conduct "on or off the job" that could affect his "reputation or goodwill in the community."

Each firefighter except Finley responded no.

Jamison agreed that all the accusations were one person's word against another, but said he "aired on the side of caution" and demoted Figueredo.

The dispute is expected to move to arbitration.

"We had to put this in the context of the fact that as a public safety agency," Jamison said, "we're one of the most trusted groups out there by anyone at any time."

Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at bdavis@tampabay.com or 850-323-0353. To write a letter to the editor, visit tampabay.com/letters.

East Lake Fire Rescue faces questions over race investigation 04/30/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 30, 2013 7:28pm]
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