WASHINGTON, D.C. (WUSA) --- The two most senior battalion chiefs in the D.C. fire department say they have been the objects of retaliation and retribution because they decided personnel cases contrary to the wishes of D.C. Fire EMS Chief Kenneth Ellerbe.
The dispute began last summer when a grateful D.C. resident appeared at a U Street fire station with two 12-packs of beer he had purchased as a way to offer his thanks to firefighters for extinguishing a fire at his home.
Told by firefighters that they could not accept the gift, the resident put the beer on the floor of the firehouse, and left.
When the beer was discovered by department leaders, three firefighters were charged with violating department rules, and faced the possibility of suspension.
Richard Sterne presided over two of the cases.
"I considered all the facts. I listened to what they had to say and I made a decision. Apparently the fire chief or somebody didn't like my decision," Sterne told 9News Now.
Instead of suspending the firefighters, Sterne chose to give them letters of reprimand. His superiors believe department rules demanded harsher punishment.
He was demoted in rank to captain. At the time he was the senior battalion chief in the department.
" Your failure to hold the members accountable for their receipt of the beer in violation of the Rules of Conduct brings into question your ability to exercise proper judgment in the performance of your assigned duties and responsibilities,"
Ellerbe wrote to Sterne in his letter of demotion.
"I think the message is intimidation. I think the message isn't to me necessarily, it's to all the other chiefs and officers who have to make independent decisions that you better make a decision that you think is what the fire chief wants," Sterne said.
"It definitely gives the appearance that our members can't get a fair hearing,"
said Ed Smith, President D.C. Firefighters Association, Local 36.
Battalion Chief Kevin Sloan, the second longest-serving battalion chief in the department, presided over a third case and also did not impose harsh punishment. He was transferred.
"I'm an expert in incident command, rail emergencies, hazardous materials responses," he said.
"And what are you doing now?" asked 9News Now.
"I'm the battalion chief in charge of toilet paper," he said.
Ellerbe denies charges of intimidation and retaliation.
"Nobody angered me. We want our employees to do what's right. There's no reason for anybody to be afraid of making the right decision," he told 9News Now.
Ellerbe said he could not specifically respond to Sterne's complaints.
"Sterne's complaints are being heard by the Office of Employee Appeals, and that's where we'll have to let that case work it's way out," he said.
"Regarding Chief Sloan, he was not demoted. His transfer was contemplated weeks before it was effected, and weeks before he made any disciplinary decision.
"I was unaware of the decision he made when his transfer was effected, so it was not a matter of retaliation or anything like that.
"We want to give some of our employees the opportunity to work in different areas, and he had been in operations for many years, and we just changed him into an administrative position when an employee who was in that administrative position was out in operations," Ellerbe said of Sloan's transfer.
"The culture now is a culture of fear. It's a culture of intimidation. It's a culture of zero morale, which you do not want on a public safety force," Sloan maintained.
"The battalion chiefs are not going to be able to give them (accused firefighters) a fair trial because they are afraid of retaliation and retribution," Sloan said.
"There is no fear and hopefully there is definitely not any intimidation," Ellerbe said.
Both Sloan and Sterne are pursuing legal remedies.