EAST LAKE — East Lake Fire Rescue stripped one lieutenant of his rank and reinstated another in an effort to address allegations of racial harassment and fend off looming arbitration.
The decisions are the department's latest attempt to regain footing after its leaders have accused each other of inappropriate texts, racial harassment and mismanagement.
The East Lake Fire Commission, the elected board that oversees the department, decided Tuesday to reverse an April decision to demote Bill Figueredo from lieutenant to driver and drop his pay $5,000 after he was accused of giving a Nazi salute and using a Jewish slur. He denies both accusations.
The move to reinstate Figueredo helps the department avoid arbitration that could have cost $10,000 or more, according to department attorney Andy Salzman.
Also, last week the department demoted James Finley, one of Figueredo's accusers, from lieutenant to driver after an investigation found that several other firefighters accused him of racist and sexist text messages and harassing language.
The messages include a picture of a black man popping out of a brown box that said, "Thanks for the gift, but I am sending it back it won't f- - - - - - work." Another shows a naked woman with her hair in a towel that says, "Not all towel heads are bad!!"
Finley denied sending the texts and said he tried to put a stop to racist language when it occurred on his shift, according to the department's investigation.
It's unclear whether Finley will appeal the demotion, but doing so could drag the department into yet another taxpayer-funded legal battle.
East Lake Fire Rescue, which employs 40 people and operates on a $4.2 million budget, has been involved in several legal disputes in recent years and has spent more than $1 million in legal fees and payouts to former employees, who have signed nondisclosure agreements that banned them from talking to the media.
The department's current saga began more than a month ago after Mark Weinkrantz, who chairs the Fire Commission, accused Figueredo of giving a Nazi salute and wrote a scathing letter asking fire Chief Tom Jamison to investigate the matter.
The investigation resulted in no evidence Figueredo did anything wrong, but Jamison recommended a demotion anyway and the commission acquiesced.
Figueredo, a Cuban-American and the department's only minority, told commissioners during a public hearing that Weinkrantz and Finley targeted him because they were racist.
He said Weinkrantz threatened to get him fired and told him he should be washing dishes and mowing lawns rather than fighting fires.
In an attempt to discredit his accusers, Figueredo showed commissioners Finley's texts and a pair of pink 8-pound weights he said Weinkrantz delivered to the fire station, calling him a derogatory name for homosexuals.
Weinkrantz said he did not make a homosexual slur but bought the dumbbells on sale and meant the gesture as a gift.
Michael Stephens, Figueredo's attorney, said he filed a complaint with the Pinellas County Office of Human Rights, which is investigating whether Weinkrantz and Finley acted improperly.
Stephens said he appreciates the commission's decision to reinstate Figueredo, but he doesn't believe it will undo the damage the department has caused by allowing things to get this far.
"At the end of the day, this still isn't a resolved issue; my client is still in a hostile work environment," he said. "He still has to report to that exact same leadership chain that discriminated against him in the first place and perpetuated that discrimination."