EAST LAKE — After a slow start, East Lake Fire Rescue has launched an investigation into whether a lieutenant sent racist text messages to firefighters and harassed the department's only minority.
Lt. James Finley is accused of sending at least two messages, including one of a black man popping out of a brown box with this message: "Thanks for the gift, but I am sending it back it won't f------ work."
Fire Chief Tom Jamison originally said he couldn't punish Finley because the texts were sent while he was off duty. After records obtained by the Tampa Bay Times showed Finley was on duty, Jamison said he had made an error and would investigate.
"We take these allegations very seriously," Jamison said Monday, adding that the department began informal questioning for the investigation Friday. "East Lake (Fire Rescue) will not tolerate harassment or discrimination from our members."
The investigation into the text messages is the latest chapter in a saga that began almost a month ago, when firefighter Bill Figueredo said during a public hearing that he was a victim of racial harassment.
Figueredo, a Cuban-American and the department's only minority, was stripped of his lieutenant rank and took a $5,000 pay cut after Finley accused him of using a Jewish slur and Fire Commissioner Mark Weinkrantz — one of five elected officials who oversee the department — accused him of giving him a Nazi salute.
To puncture the credibility of his accusers, Figueredo showed commissioners provocative text messages sent from Finley's phone.
Figueredo also accused Weinkrantz of delivering 8-pound pink dumbbells to him at the fire station and calling him a derogatory term for homosexuals. Weinkrantz acknowledged buying the dumbbells but denied making the slur.
Finley did not respond to a message left on his phone Tuesday.
The dispute over Figueredo's demotion is headed to arbitration unless attorneys strike an agreement.
Fire department attorney Andy Salzman said the dispute could lead to a legal battle costing $10,000.
Michael Stephens, Figueredo's attorney, estimated the cost would be much more.
Jamison said he is implementing diversity and sensitivity training and has consulted with the Pinellas County Office of Human Rights, which protects people in discrimination cases, on how to move forward.
He directed Figueredo to submit his accusations about Weinkrantz to the human rights office since it would be a conflict of interest for the department to investigate one of its own leaders, Jamison said.
Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 323-0353. To write a letter to the editor, visit tampabay.com/letters.