EAST LAKE — As a Cuban-American and East Lake Fire Rescue's only minority, Lt. Bill Figueredo says fellow firefighters frequently called him a "dirty Mexican" and told him he should be mowing the lawn rather than fighting fires.
He was quiet about it for years, played along with it even, until he was accused of a giving a Nazi salute and using an anti-Jewish slur, allegations he denies.
Figueredo was demoted. Then reinstated.
But the incident brought on accusations, public meetings and an investigation, all of which have raised questions about whether East Lake Fire Rescue condoned harassment and is carrying on the "old boys" management style that troubled the department years ago and led to an overhaul of the way the district was run.
Figueredo's accusations and an internal investigation by the department suggest harassment may have been prevalent and ongoing, and in some cases exhibited by department leaders.
East Lake Fire Rescue employs about 40 people and operates on a $4.2 million budget.
"This is, in my view, an example of what happens when a friendly atmosphere becomes just a little bit too friendly," said Paul Ferreri, one of five commissioners who govern the department, during a recent meeting about Figueredo's demotion.
Michael Stephens, Figueredo's attorney, has filed a complaint with the Pinellas County Office of Human Rights, which is investigating the department.
In Stephens' view, fire Chief Tom Jamison tacitly allowed Mark Weinkrantz, chairman of the fire commission, and firefighters to harass Figueredo.
But when Weinkrantz — with no witnesses present — accused Figueredo of a giving him a Nazi salute, Figueredo was demoted immediately. Only negative publicity and the threat of expensive arbitration prompted the department to reinstate Figueredo last week, Stephens argued.
"The fact is they treated (Figueredo) differently," Stephens said. "They're trying to paper over what was egregious conduct and say 'boys will be boys.' "
Jamison said the department is implementing ethics and sensitivity training and does not tolerate discriminatory or harassing behavior.
However, Figueredo has made the following claims:
• That Weinkrantz delivered a set of hot-pink dumbbells to the fire station and called Figueredo a derogatory term for homosexuals.
• That Weinkrantz threatened to get Figueredo fired but said "not to worry because I'll write you a letter of reference to a lawn mowing company or restaurant where you can wash dishes."
• That James Finley, who was recently demoted from lieutenant to driver, sent two racially charged text messages. 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!!"
• That Finley frequently referred to Figueredo as a "dirty Puerto Rican, dirty Mexican and a dirty Cuban" and made comments like "Hey Fig, they are playing your national anthem" in reference to the roar of the lawn mower outside.
Finley told investigators he tried to put a stop to firefighters' use of racist language on his shift. He provided a long list of racial terms, many of them obscure, that he said he banned.
He accused Figueredo of making erratic tirades against him, including one that he said resulted in a delayed response to a structure fire.
Several firefighters said they've heard Finley use racist language for years, especially toward Figueredo, according to the department's investigation.
There are federal laws that ban harassment and race discrimination, but in addition, the East Lake department has an anti-harassment policy that forbids "dirty jokes" and verbal abuse or kidding about national origin or race.
The policy was created in 1992 after fire commissioners promoted a chief who had a personnel file thick with reprimands for racial slurs and sexual harassment.
The promotion sparked public outrage and a federal discrimination complaint filed by the department's only full-time female employee.
It also prompted a change from an appointed Fire Commission to an elected one.
Neither Jamison nor commissioners can remember any minorities ever working at the department, until Figueredo. No minorities applied during the most recent round of hiring, Jamison said.
"What does it really mean to be a minority?" Jamison replied to a reporter's question. "I'm Irish."
Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-323-0353. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.