Fire department firing: Spycam used to justify termination

J.R. Harris says his pursuit of legal fees for his wrongful termination from the Charlottesville Fire Department wasn’t about the money, but about what took place.
Photo: Martyn Kyle J.R. Harris says his pursuit of legal fees for his wrongful termination from the Charlottesville Fire Department wasn’t about the money, but about what took place. Photo: Martyn Kyle

Longtime Charlottesville Fire Department mechanic J.R. Harris was well known to be a teetotaler, and even his bosses said they didn’t think the alleged bottle of booze one of them found in his desk was his. Nonetheless, when Harris got an October 7, 2014, termination letter, one of the reasons cited for his dismissal was possession of alcohol on city property.

And to prove that, Charlottesville police installed a hidden camera in his office, a practice a civil rights expert calls “concerning,” and that should serve as a warning to city employees: You never know when you’re being filmed.

In a 10-hour city personnel appeals board hearing February 23, fire department management laid out five examples of Harris’ work being improperly done—even though several of his accusers acknowledged they had used him to fix their personal vehicles.

Harris brought in witnesses to dispute the allegations of shoddy workmanship, and his attorney, Janice Redinger, said he was set up with a paper trail created and alcohol planted in his office to provide grounds for a wrongful termination. Harris waived his right to a private proceeding, and the hearing was attended by two dozen people, most of them retired firefighters there to support him.

City attorney Allyson Davies called the decision to can 14-year veteran Harris “a hard and sad case” for Chief Charles Werner. Harris, she said, was “unable to perform his job,” endangering both firefighters and the public.

Redinger contended that the allegations about negligence in Harris’ work were “completely and utterly fabricated or hugely overstated,” and that Deputy Chief Emily Pelliccia, promoted last year to be the department’s highest ranking female, had declared to two people she was going to “fire his f***ing ass,” and that she was tired of Harris, a devout Christian, “hiding behind his religion.”

In a bizarre, small town twist, Redinger asked Pelliccia if she remembered making such a statement when she and Pelliccia went biking last spring before Harris was Redinger’s client. Pelliccia said she did not.

Harris’ immediate supervisor, Captain Jimmy Mehring, said he discovered an unmarked bottle with a clear liquid in a storage area beside Harris’ desk where spare parts were kept on August 30 and that its contents smelled like alcohol. “I was shocked, really shocked,” said Mehring, who put the bottle back. He contacted Pelliccia, and he said neither initially believed the bottle belonged to Harris.

Pelliccia said she contacted Char-lottesville Police and was advised they could help find the booze-hiding culprit. Charlottesville Police Detective Blaine Cosgro testified that he installed the camera in an air-conditioning vent September 9 and retrieved its data September 15.

The grainy video snippet shown to the panel was not as clear to some observers as it was to Pelliccia and Mehring, who said it was Harris going straight to the hidden bottle, wrapping it in something and removing it. Of the week’s worth of surveillance footage, only about three minutes were shown and Cosgro said he didn’t preserve the rest of the video. He also said that police had installed cameras to spy on city employees 10 to 12 times over the past decade.

John Whitehead, founder of civil liberties organization The Rutherford Institute, said the law is that employees have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their workplace unless the employer tells them they don’t. For example, a lot of private businesses are installing cameras and telling employees they will be filmed.

At the hearing, Redinger said Harris had hemorrhoids and closed the door to his office to apply medication. “It seems to me if he closed the door to apply Preparation H,” said Whitehead, “he had a reasonable expectation of privacy. The camera, to me, that’s going too far.” Whitehead also wondered why Harris’ supervisors didn’t just ask him about the bottle.

Also troubling, said Whitehead, was not having access to all the footage. “If you edit it, how do you know you’ve seen the whole story?” he asked. He was also concerned that police have authorized surveillance of city employees other times. “Sounds to me they’re doing willy-nilly surveillance,” he said.

Pelliccia testified she checked with the city attorney’s office to make sure the surveillance was legal.

Charlottesville does not have a policy for spy-camming employees, but does follow all applicable laws when surveilling, said spokesperson Miriam Dickler. And according to the city’s drug and alcohol policy, the city reserves the right to search all employee workplaces.

When Harris found the camera, he said he was upset and he confided in Mehring, whom he considered as close as a brother because they’d shared morning devotions before work. Mehring, in turn, contacted Pelliccia, and Harris said she told him he could either go on administrative leave or go to a termination meeting.

Harris attended an October 3 meeting at which Charlottesville Police Sergeant Brian O’Donnell and a uniformed police officer were present. O’Donnell testified the police presence was a precaution because of Pelliccia and Mehring’s concerns about violence from Harris. “We’ve all heard about workplace shootings,” said O’Donnell.

Harris had been charged with felony assault in a family matter in December 2013, a charge that was dismissed in March 2014, according to Greene County General District Court records. He was on administrative leave during that time, Redinger said.

At the meeting, Harris was asked about five instances of repairs that Mehring, who kept four logs on Harris, said hadn’t been done or had been done improperly. Harris, who had contacted an attorney at that point, did not respond to questions on his attorney’s advice. He testified at the hearing that was the first time he’d heard about these errors in his work, and he disputed Mehring’s account that he’d improperly done repairs. 

Pelliccia and Chief Werner testified that Harris was fired because his work was a safety issue.

And Werner, whose department just received the top insurance rating possible, said, “I did not and I do not think the bottle belonged to J.R. Harris, but there were other issues.” When Redinger asked him why possession of alcohol was put into Harris’ termination letter, the chief said Harris should have brought the bottle to management. “He knew it was alcohol and he was in possession of it,” said Werner.

According to Redinger, Harris said he got rid of the bottle because “whosever it is, they won’t come hiding it in here again.”

Testifying on Harris’ behalf were his former supervisor, Pete Sweeney, and former fire chief and city councilor Julian Taliaferro. Sweeney, who supervised Harris for 13 years, said he’d heard Pelliccia say she didn’t want Harris working there.

Sweeney also testified that it wasn’t Harris’ job to fix a pump, one of the repairs he’s accused of botching, but that the repair Harris did would work just fine.

And Taliaferro, who hired Harris, said, “I thought he had a good work ethic. Whatever you asked him to do, he would do it.”

Contacted after the hearing, Taliaferro admitted he was puzzled by the termination. “I just think somebody doesn’t like him,” opined the former chief. “The big question is, he works on everybody’s [personal vehicles], and suddenly he doesn’t know what he’s doing?”

The personnel appeals board will issue a ruling by March 9.