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  1. Pasco

Pasco fire union seeks bankruptcy court protection; biggest creditors are two firefighters who sued and won.

The Pasco firefighters' union is seeking protection in U.S. Bankruptcy Court from debts tied to a jury verdict and legal fees awarded to two firefighters who said they faced union retaliation after filing discrimination complaints a dozen years ago.

The Pasco County Professional Firefighters Local 4420 filed a Chapter 11 petition in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Tampa on April 1 that, if granted, would allow it to reorganize its debts.

The petition lists the largest creditors as the two Pasco Fire Rescue employees who successfully sued the union and Pasco County — Jerry Brown, a driver/engineer, and Anthony Booth, now a captain. They are owed a combined $189,000, and their attorneys are due more than $89,000. The union also hasn't paid its state and national dues of nearly $10,600, according to the filing.

The bankruptcy court proceeding is not expected to affect the union's ability to continue negotiations with Pasco County on annual salary adjustments.

"I do not believe so. It doesn't really affect us at all,'' said Barbara Hitzemann, the county's director of human resources.

Local 4420 bargains on behalf of approximately 560 Pasco firefighters, most of whom are dues-paying members.

Efforts to obtain comment from the union's bankruptcy court attorney, Jeffrey Childers of Gainesville, and from the law firm representing Booth and Brown, the Law Office of Cynthia N. Sass, were unsuccessful.

The case began in 2007 when Booth, who is Hispanic, filed a discrimination complaint against a fire captain. Brown was a witness and later filed his own complaint, saying the same captain made anti-Semitic remarks. Brown's wife is Jewish.

A judge set aside the discrimination case in 2012, but let a jury decide a separate claim that the county and the firefighters union retaliated against the pair. The jury, and later the 11th Circuit Court of Appeal, sided with Booth and Brown and said the union shouldn't have circulated a 2008 memo that identified the firefighters, labeled their claims as "frivolous'' and said members could be assessed fees to cover the legal costs of fighting the complaints.

In a 2014 ruling, the appeals court also said Pasco County retaliated when it required the men to undergo psychological tests after they said they couldn't trust co-workers who shunned them. The appeals court awarded $23,0000 in damages from the county and $166,000 in damages from the union.

A federal judge, in February 2015, said the pair's attorneys were entitled to nearly $90,000 from the union and $64,0000 from Pasco County. The county cut its check a month later, records show.

In its bankruptcy court filing, the union estimated its assets at between zero and $50,000. Payroll records show Pasco's union members pay annual dues of $792. That means 500 dues-paying members would generate $396,000 each year for the union.

The attorneys who represented the union in the retaliation complaint are not listed among Local 4420's creditors.

Contact C.T. Bowen at ctbowen@tampabay.com or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2.

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