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Suit: Probe into FDNY EMT’s murder sidelined during turmoil between commissioner, top chiefs

Chief of Safety Frank Leeb says the decision to move his team out of the Fort Totten building delayed the internal investigation into Capt. Alison Russo’s death


The feud between Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh and top FDNY chiefs has turned more bitter with new allegations that one of her decisions delayed a probe into the murder of EMT Capt. Alison Russo’s murder on a Queens sidewalk.

Photo/Theodore Parisienne/Tribune News Service

By Thomas Tracy
New York Daily News

NEW YORK — A feud between Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh and top FDNY chiefs has turned more bitter with new allegations that one of her decisions delayed a probe into the murder of an EMT and fresh claims that Kavanagh is pursuing a “heinous” and ageist vendetta against long-time department leaders.

The allegations come in an updated lawsuit against the city and Kavanagh come as 10 staff chiefs have either been demoted by Kavanagh or have asked to be lowered in rank as turmoil in the FDNY’s upper ranks continues.

The FDNY’s internal investigation of EMT Lt. Alison Russo’s murder on a Queens sidewalk was conducted by the department’s Safety Command, which is responsible for ensuring the safety and security of department workers.

Kavanagh and her team told FDNY Chief of Safety Frank Leeb on Jan. 30 that the Fort Totten building which housed the Safety Command needed to be vacated “immediately” to house a incoming communications group, according to the suit.

The court papers say Leeb told Kavanagh and FDNY Deputy Commissioner JonPaul Augier that the building was being “used for important safety command functions” including the investigation of Russo’s stabbing murder, which police say was carried out by an unhinged stranger just steps from her Queens EMS station in September.

“I told Kavanagh, Augier and (Chief of Staff Luis) Martinez that moving Safety Command out of (the building) would delay the investigation,” Leeb said in an affidavit.

“For that reason, I asked them to hold off on relocating,” Leeb stated. “They would not extend the deadline for Safety Command to vacate.”

Leeb followed his orders and quickly moved his team out the building. As a result, the suit says, internal investigation into Russo’s death was delayed by about three weeks.

As of April 17, the communications group had not moved in, according to the suit.

Leeb claims the decision to move his team out of the Fort Totten building was retaliation for opposing a plan to put Augier in charge of an important committee to find replacement breathing equipment for firefighters. He believed the position should have gone to a more experienced FDNY chief.

In an email to Kavanagh, Leeb asked to be demoted to deputy chief, writing “several changes have led me to believe that our organizational priorities are shifting away from the cornerstones of safety and training which have long protected the citizens and visitors of New York City as well as the members of our great organization.”

The delay in the Russo investigation was just one result of missteps by Kavanagh and her team, according to the suit, which added three new plaintiffs and adds a litany of new examples on how older chiefs are being harassed into leaving the department in retaliation for questioning her decisions.

Assistant Fire Chiefs Michael Gala, 62, Joe Jardin, 61, and Michael Massucci, 59, Leeb, 54, retired EMS Chief James Booth, 59, and EMS Computer Aided Dispatch Programming Manager and Deputy Director Carla Murphy, 56, say they were targeted by Kavanagh and her team “because they were at or near the age of 60″ according to the lawsuit filed in Brooklyn Supreme Court.

At 40, Kavanagh, the city’s first woman fire commissioner, is also one of the city’s youngest commissioners.

“To subject these experienced public servants to age discrimination and retaliation is not only morally wrong, it defies the letter and spirit of the laws that guarantee equal treatment in any American workplace regardless of race, gender, religion — or age,” said attorney Jim Walden, who is representing the chiefs.

“We are hopeful that the court will recognize the injustice suffered by this group of dedicated public servants.”

“All these heroes seek is to be treated fairly and to restore an FDNY that puts safety first,” Walden said.

The amended lawsuit claims Kavanagh retaliated against Gala for participating in the lawsuit by publicizing his son Robert’s robbery case in FDNY internal media feeds. The suit also says Kavanagh pressured chief Massucci into retracting his demotion request by claiming it would get him “back into the mix.”

The ageism lawsuit was first filed on March 23. Since then, the department has been in “free fall” the amended complaint claims.

“The defendants’ acts of retaliation have left staff chief morale festering,” the lawsuit notes, noting repeated tense incidents between Kavanagh and the staff chiefs and newly appointed First Deputy Commissioner Joseph Pfeifer, who the fire commissioner appointed “to quell the turmoil caused by her own actions.”

Pfeifer, 67, participated in Kavanagh’s “smear campaign” against the chiefs, and was quoted in a recent New York Times column saying that the upper ranks could be “invigorated” by “fresh blood” — following the fire commissioner’s ageist mantra.

“He quickly proved willing to join in Kavanagh’s pattern of age-based retaliation, even though he is a member of that class,” the lawsuit noted.

The unrest in the department’s upper ranks began in February after The News broke a story about how several top uniformed FDNY officials stepped down to protest Kavanagh demoting Gala, Jardin and Fred Schaaf, all assistant chiefs, to deputy chiefs.

FDNY sources said Kavanagh was opposed to the demoted chiefs aggressive leadership styles and described them as “bad apples” although none of them had any substantiated complaints with the department.

Kavanagh also complained that her staff chiefs hadn’t brought her any new ideas about how to improve the department.

She was said to have wanted “out-of-the-box thinking” from the chiefs but was peppered with requests about overtime and department-issued take-home cars, according to a recording of the gathering shared with The News.

In response, seven other staff chiefs, including Massucci, FDNY Chief of Department John Hodgens and Chief of Fire Operations John Esposito, have asked to be demoted to deputy chief and moved back into the field.

Kavanagh hasn’t signed off on any of the demotion requests and has asked everyone to stay on as she fine tunes her leadership team.

There are 23 staff chiefs in the entire FDNY, including several on medical leave. Between those who have been demoted and those out on medical leave, there are only seven active staff chiefs citywide, sources said.

“This is another unfortunate attempt to spread baseless rumors to undermine the reputation of the greatest Fire Department in the world,” FDNY spokeswoman Amanda Farinacci said in a written statement. “The Fire Commissioner remains focused on keeping New Yorkers safe and increasing safety for the members of the FDNY.”


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A spokesman for the city Law Department noted that the demoted chiefs’ claims that ageism and their treatment by Kavanagh endangers the public have previously been shot down in court.

An earlier lawsuit requesting a temporary restraining order against the demotions of Gala, Jardin and Schaaf — claiming that the demotions would impact public safety — was rejected by a federal judge in March.

“A federal court already rejected plaintiffs’ claims that their demotions would put the public at risk. Now plaintiffs are trying to make this about age discrimination with new claims in state court,” a spokesman for the Law Department said. “The city will respond to the suit.”

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