Pasco Fire Rescue official resigns under pressure

A top-ranking Pasco Fire Rescue official has resigned under pressure less than two months after anonymous allegations surfaced that he inflated his credentials to a previous employer.

County officials say, however, they asked Training Chief Stephen G. Smith, a six-year veteran, to resign because of performance-related issues — not because of documents they received showing Smith left the Pinellas Park Fire Department in 2002 amid an inquiry into whether he exaggerated his educational background and even falsified school diplomas.

"It's coincidental is the best way to put it," said Chief Anthony Lopinto.

"It just wasn't working out. That's really the truth," said personnel director Barbara DeSimone. "It wasn't the documents, it was job performance."

Lopinto pointed to a memo he wrote a year ago in which he asked Smith to "stay within the boundaries of your authority" and stop making unprofessional comments that could land the county in legal trouble. This past February, Smith got a written reprimand — his first — that said he dropped the ball on putting together a new training program. And last month, a firefighter filed a grievance alleging that Smith made an inaccurate statement about him and e-mailed it to other department members.

Smith, 55, submitted his resignation letter on Thursday, but his resignation won't be effective until July 2. County officials allowed him to use that later effective date because that's when he becomes vested in the Florida Retirement System.

Until that date, Smith is using vacation time.

"He was not working against the system, he was not unlawful. … He just struggled for his place within the system," Lopinto said. "Our goal is to make that separation. It's not to physically destroy you as a human being."

Smith, in his resignation letter, called Lopinto's request that he resign "arbitrary and capricious" and called the anonymous complaint against him "not valid."

In a brief telephone interview, Smith said he felt somebody in the department was trying to ruin his reputation by sending out the documents.

Smith was hired as a fire investigator in July 2004 and got high marks on his evaluations. He was promoted to training chief in January 2008. That promotion came with a $61,369 salary, up from the $51,000 he had been making.

Officials say Smith's performance problems as a chief happened to come to a head as they learned more details about his history with the Pinellas Park Fire Department, where he worked from 2000 to 2002.

Smith gave Pinellas Park a resume stating he'd received a bachelor's degree in 1989 and a master's degree in 1990 from Western States University for Professional Studies in Missouri.

But in February 2002, then-Chief Ken Cramer got a tip that the information was false. He placed Smith on administrative leave as he began an internal investigation.

Pinellas Park officials that month received a letter from Western States chancellor Zdena Zajickova saying that Smith held no degrees from the school.

She also said that the diplomas that Smith submitted, which bore her signature, didn't look like the ones that the school issues. She denied the signatures belonged to her.

Western States was an unaccredited correspondence school that is no longer in operation. The school earned a reputation as a diploma mill, and in 1999 the city of Hartford, Conn., cut off incentive pay to firefighters with transcripts from Western States after a captain submitted his master's degree seven days after he submitted his bachelor's, according to news reports.

Pinellas Park officials also went back to verify another item on Smith's resume: the captain position he said he held with the Toronto Fire Department between 1977 and 1989. Toronto responded in an e-mail that Smith never held the captain position and had resigned as a firefighter, first class.

Smith did not wait for the chief to wrap up his investigation. On Feb. 25, 2002, he submitted a one-sentence resignation letter.

When Smith applied in Pasco County in 2004, he listed "irreconcilable differences" as the reason he left Pinellas Park two years earlier.

The resume he gave Pasco had no reference to Western States. He said only that he had served as "acting captain" in Toronto.

Officials here contacted only the place Smith worked immediately after Pinellas Park, Rural/Metro Ambulance in Orlando, according to DeSimone.

"We just checked with the previous employer," she said. "We never checked with Pinellas Park."

Though an anonymous person sent the files to Pasco officials in April, Lopinto caught wind late last year of some odd circumstances surrounding Smith's resignation from Pinellas Park. He said he called Smith into his office.

Lopinto said Smith told him he'd exaggerated "a little bit on the education and that he learned his lesson and that he wouldn't do that again."

Lopinto said he'd been surprised to see the documentation in which Smith was accused of submitting false diplomas but he cautioned that he would have needed to do his own investigation into that allegation.

In addition, Pasco applications ask if potential hires have ever been convicted of a crime or pleaded no contest to a crime even if adjudication is withheld.

Smith answered no. And anybody searching his criminal background today would see only a clean record.

The batch of documents sent to county officials, however, show he did plead no contest in 1994 to a charge of disorderly conduct in Pasco County. Smith had that record sealed, something he acknowledged to the Times in an interview.

"If the record's expunged, under Florida law, you have the right to say it did not happen," he said.

Indeed, state law has only a limited number of instances in which expunged records must be acknowledged, such as if a person is applying to work for a law enforcement agency.

Based on the sealed record, and on the fact he did not list Western States on his Pasco application, county officials determined he did not provide Pasco with any false information, DeSimone said.

Though Lopinto's May 2009 memo pointed to brewing problems, Smith's formal evaluations have been good. In February 2010, he got his first written reprimand for failing "to properly research and provide accurate information" about the implementation of a new agility test for firefighters, the reprimand says.

As a result, the department had to postpone the test until next year, leading to "confusion and frustration" in the department, his evaluation said.

Nonetheless, his evaluation, signed the next month, had an overall positive tone, with then- Assistant Chief Mike Ciccarello calling Smith "a very dedicated and loyal member of this organization."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Pasco Fire Rescue official resigns under pressure 06/05/10 [Last modified: Saturday, June 5, 2010 3:11pm]

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