Racial tensions flare at East Lake Fire Rescue

EAST LAKE — One lieutenant has been demoted and another is under investigation amid accusations of racial text messages and harassment at the East Lake Fire District.

Firefighter Bill Figueredo unleashed a slew of allegations during an East Lake Fire Commission meeting last week, in an effort to fight the accusations that led to his demotion from lieutenant to driver, a pay drop of about $5,000.

In the tone of a man fighting for his job and reputation, Figueredo denied claims he directed a Nazi salute and ethnic slur at Mark Weinkrantz, who chairs the fire commission — the elected body that oversees the department. Another lieutenant, James Finley, also filed a complaint that he overheard Figueredo use a slur against Jewish people.

But as a result of Figueredo's allegations, Finley now faces an investigation over racially charged text messages that came from his phone.

In a move that brought murmurs of disbelief from many of the 30 or so firefighters and community members in the audience, commissioners voted unanimously to strip Figueredo of his rank and dock his pay.

Weinkrantz recused himself from the vote, but spoke often during the discussion, whispering and laughing with other commissioners.

Figueredo, who has worked for the fire department for 22 years, sat beside his wife and 11-month-old daughter in the front row.

Several commissioners said their vote was less about whether Figueredo had made the Nazi salute, and more about supporting Fire Chief Tom Jamison, who recommended the demotion.

"Why would the chairman of my commission levy a complaint against one of my lieutenants? It all comes down to motivation," Jamison said. "The commissioner has no reason to lie while (Figueredo) is more likely to deny the accusations because he's in a defensive posture."

John Klinefelter, president of the local union, said he was baffled by the decision to demote Figueredo without proof of wrongdoing. The issue is expected to move to arbitration.

The five-person commission oversees East Lake Fire Rescue's 40 or so employees and $4.2 million budget. Weinkrantz was elected chair in 2010.

Figueredo said there are plenty of reasons why Weinkrantz would lie. And Finley, too.

They are targeting him for speaking out about their own racial harassment, he said.

Weinkrantz has targeted Figueredo as a Cuban-American and the department's only minority, calling him a "dirty Mexican" and threatening to get him fired so he can work with other Hispanics as a dishwasher or lawn worker, Figueredo said.

Holding an unwrapped pair of pink dumbbells in the air, Figueredo told commissioners Weinkrantz delivered them to the office and called him a derogatory term for homosexuals. Weinkrantz admitted giving the dumbbells, but denied the harassing comments.

"It just so happens the pink 8-pound weights were the ones that were on sale," he said, smirking.

Finley had also displayed racism, Figueredo said, holding up his phone to display a text message he received from Finley, copied to several firefighters.

"What I want to know is how the credibility of an individual who puts out garbage like this can be weighed greater than my credibility," he told commissioners.

Next to a photo of a black man popping out of a brown box, the message read, "Thanks for the gift, but I am sending it back it won't f------ work."

Another text showed a naked woman with a towel on her head and says "Not all towel heads are bad!!"

Finley could not be reached for comment because he is on military leave, Jamison said. He did not respond to cell phone calls.

Jamison said he will investigate the circumstances surrounding the text messages but he doesn't think he could punish Finley because, Jamison said, he sent the text messages while off duty. He added he would follow up on all allegations of racial harassment.

This is not the first time Weinkrantz or East Lake Fire Rescue have seen controversy. When Weinkrantz ran for his seat, former Fire Chief Jeff Malzone complained to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office that Weinkrantz followed him home and sat outside his house.

After investigating, the Sheriff's Office decided not to file criminal charges and the matter was closed.

The commission voted to lay off Malzone and a deputy chief shortly after Weinkrantz was elected commissioner.

Former Commissioner Bill Cannon was also forced to resign in 2010 after he posted a sexually explicit profile and photo of himself on an adult website.

Researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Contact Brittany Alana Davis at bdavis@tampabay.com or (850) 323-0353.

Racial tensions flare at East Lake Fire Rescue 04/26/13 [Last modified: Friday, April 26, 2013 8:07pm]

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