Six months after he was suspended without pay, a high-ranking member of the Kingston Fire Department is headed to court to win his job back. An attorney for onetime assistant chief (and, briefly, chief) Chris Rea calls the disciplinary charges, which include payroll fraud and dereliction of duty, too little and too late to cost his client his job.
“Let me be clear, Chris Rea denies that he has engaged in any inappropriate conduct,” said Rea’s lawyer, Albany attorney Ronald Dunn. “But even if he did, the time for bringing those charges has come and gone.”
Rea was suspended without pay back in February, just one week after he was appointed to replace Chief Rick Salzmann after Salzmann was abruptly suspended amid allegations of what Mayor Shayne Gallo would only describe as “issues of time and attendance. (Salzmann later retired.) As with Salzmann, Gallo initially declined to elaborate on the allegations against Rea, except to say that they too involved time and attendance.
In May, Rea filed suit in state Supreme Court claiming that his rights, under state civil service law been violated. In the suit, Rea alleged that he had never been presented with formal disciplinary charges or offered a hearing to defend himself against the allegations. In a response, city attorneys claimed that Rea had filed notice that he intended to resign, pre-empting the need for formal charges or a hearing. According to city officials, Rea never informed them that he had changed his mind and decided to fight the charges. Nevertheless, on Aug. 22, Rea was presented with formal charges, which included 27 specific allegations of misconduct and dereliction of duty.
Among the allegations contained in the disciplinary charges are that on 13 dates between September 2006 and January 2010, Rea was paid for work at the fire department when, in fact, he was working as an instructor at the State Fire Academy in Montour Falls. Two other allegations contend that in January 2012, Rea submitted to the City Comptroller annual time sheets for 2011, 2006 and 2007 that contained false entries regarding vacation and personal day accruals. The charges also claim that on four other occasions in 2010 and 2011, Rea put in applications for supplemental time he was not entitled to, receiving more than $11,000 in compensation. The misconduct charges also include allegations that Rea used his work computer to upload and store “non-work related, offensive and/or sexually explicit material” in violation of city policy.
A second set of allegations, under the heading of “incompetence/dereliction of duty” alleges that Rea endangered the safety of fellow firefighters by failing to perform critical duties as the department’s chief training officer. Specifically, the charges claims that Rea failed to provide necessary equipment, training and planning to comply with the state’s “Ropes Law.” The law, which was passed after a 2005 incident where two New York Cityfirefighters were killed and four badly hurt when they were forced to jump from a burning Bronx tenement, requires fire departments to provide emergency escape gear for all personnel. Rea also allegedly failed to ensure that firefighters “turnout gear” was replaced in a timely manner and that oxygen tanks were properly calibrated. According to Gallo, the training and equipment deficiencies were widely known within the department, but rank-and-file firefighters kept quiet out of fear of retaliation by higher-ups in city government.
“Nobody wanted to make waves because that’s how [Former Mayor James] Sottile and Salzmann ran that department,” said Gallo. “People over there were scared to death.”
Dunn, meanwhile, has challenged all of the charges, claiming that they are both false and, in most cases, beyond the 18-month window in which officials can bring charges under civil service law. Addressing the alleged double-dipping, Dunn said that on all of the days in question, Rea either put in a full eight hours with the Fire Department before heading to Montour Falls (which, according to Google Maps, is almost four hours driving time from Kingston) for evening classes, or properly put in for time off to teach at the academy. Dunn chalked up the alleged abuse of “supplemental time” to a clerical error.
According to Dunn, the contract signed by Rea and Sottile upon his appointment as assistant chief entitled him to the same holiday pay as rank-and-file firefighters. However, the final contract filed with the city excluded that language and Rea failed to notice the omission. Dunn added that the checks for the supposedly unwarranted holiday pay were signed off on by higher-ranking city officials, constituting proof that there was no intentional wrongdoing by his client. The alleged inappropriate material on Rea’s computer, Dunn argued, was merely humorous items sent to his private e-mail by friends. Dunn also argued that Rea was not able to comply with training and equipment requirements for the simple reason that city officials did not make provisions for them in the city budget.